"All right," grunted Slade. "Have it your own way. I back up."
"Sure. Even a tenderfoot is entitled to that—when he gits the drop on you."
"Quite true," agreed Lennon, and he thrust the revolver into his pocket. "Now, with regard to the lode, our next step will be——"
"What'd you say you was to git from your copper company?" broke in Slade, suddenly straight-eyed and cordial.
"Twenty thousand bonus for relocating the lode, and——"
"You can draw on 'em for it?"
"For half, at least. You shall have your ten thousand as soon as you rid the Farleys of Cochise and his gang. That was the agreement."
The trader thwacked his beefy hand down on Lennon's shoulder.
"That's a go, pard. I own up honest I figgered your talk of copper was all bunk. But I aim to stand by my bargains. Only you're sure now this here lode ain't no blind, are you? You ain't got that gold mine, too, hiding out hereabouts?"
"I give you my word, Slade, this is the only mine or lode of which I know."
Slade's look was more profane than a spoken curse.
"Huh—another El Dorado lie roped and branded. Only thing to do is to go after that bonus of yours."
"I must take samples and measurements for my report," said Lennon. "The company does not pay for the guesses of its engineers."
None too willingly Slade took the end of the small steel-ribbon engineer's tape that was held out to him. Lennon measured the width of the copper ledges, noted the trend and dip of the immense lode, and calculated its thickness where exposed. Samples were then gathered.
Upon the return down the slide the trader suddenly paused to point at the skull of a half-buried human skeleton.
"Huh," he grunted. "Cripple Sim didn't have no pard. But look at the pick—another prospector. Must 'a' stumbled on the mine. Lots of good it done him. See that hole? His pard plugged him through the head, streaked out, got lost, died. That's how I figger it."
"Poor chap!" Lennon murmured his pity for the murdered man, and he lingered to cover over the skeleton with a pile of loose stones.
At the spring he found the Indians cooking another round of flapjacks, bacon, and coffee. After the meal the party waited through the heat of mid-day while the horses cropped the grass along the banks of the spring rill.
At first there seemed nothing of interest about the old cabin. The thatch had half blown off; the adobe-plastered stone fireplace and chimney had tumbled down, and sand had drifted in past the broken wattle door. But when Lennon went in to take advantage of the patch of shade that was offered, he was shocked to find the skeleton of a woman huddled in the far corner.
Summoned by his call, Slade eyed the skeleton with callous indifference.
"Well, what you kicking up such a fuss about?" he growled. "Mebbe it's a squaw—mebbe a white woman. What's the difference? Been dead eight or ten years, by the look of things. Must 'a' got hers same time as the man. We're lucky they didn't git our mine."
The start back was made so late that the party did not reach the arsenic spring until dusk. Lennon had convinced himself that Slade planned to return to Dead Hole and at least make a pretense of earning the ten thousand dollars.
His own scheme was to seize Slade's horse and make a run for the railway. But first he must wait to be guided back through the devil's dooryard of crags and clefts.
He fell asleep with his hand upon the butt of his revolver and the revolver under his body. He awoke at dawn to find his wrists lashed together. One of the Navahos stood on guard beside him. The revolver was gone. Slade and the others were already eating.
No food was brought to Lennon. But after he had been roughly tossed into his saddle by the Navahos, Slade brought a drink of water from the arsenic spring and offered it with mock hospitality.
"It's a dry ride," he urged. "Take a good swaller, son. It'll keep you from gitting thirsty."
Lennon looked at him steady-eyed.
"May I ask what you expect to gain by this, Slade?"
"Gain?—me?" The trader stared back no less unwaveringly. "I just done it to save you gitting in trouble. You're too careless—way you handle a gun. Might hurt somebody one of these here days. Anyhow, this'll help you think things over. Sabe?"
The poison water splashed down upon the dry rocks. Slade mounted, to ride off after the guide. The other Navahos lashed Lennon to his saddle and drove his pony before them, along with the pack horse.
Though the old Navaho found a rather shorter way out through the jumble maze of the bad lands, Lennon's mouth and throat were dust dry and his tongue swollen before the party reached the trail.
The thirst torture continued until the arrival at the pueblo. There Slade at last gave drink to his prisoner and disclosed his purpose, with a pretense of indignation.
"You ought to be strung up for trying to shoot me, Lennon. But I'm an easy-going man—easy and forgiving. You only got to make out your report and send for that twenty thousand. When it comes on, I'll let you go."
"Very kind of you, I'm sure," replied Lennon, after he had drained the last drop of water from the jar. "However, I am in no hurry to make my report. I shall send it on and draw your half of the money—after you have kept your bargain with regard to Cochise."
Slade deliberately drew his revolver and aimed it between Lennon's eyes.
"Just remember, your riding in the way you did was to set you to thinking," he reminded. "This ain't no joke. Guess you'll agree now to git started on that report, huh?"
Lennon smiled at the revolver and the still more menacing steel-white eyes that glared at him along the barrel.
"Is it not time you set to thinking yourself, Slade?" he suggested. "Alive, I am worth ten thousand dollars to you, as soon as you keep your bargain. Dead, I would not be worth a penny to you or any one else."
The brick red of the trader's big face purpled and the hand that gripped the revolver shook with the excess of his rage as he jammed the weapon back into its holster.
"Wait," he said. "We'll see what Cochise can do to make you behave."
Fresh horses were saddled, and Lennon was tied on as before. His last hope of escape went glimmering. He realized that he had missed his one chance when the party first reached the main trail, coming out of Dead Hole.
To have attacked even then would have been a desperate undertaking—one man against five. But he would have had at least a fighting chance. Now he was unarmed and bound, unable even to shift in the saddle.
Slade set a hot pace that fast ate up the hard miles of the return trail. But no pony could carry his massive weight as had the horse. Before the main canon was reached, his mount began to flag. Only the most merciless of rowelling could goad the jaded beast out of a jog except for short spurts. In the descent to the canon the pony began to stumble badly. But Slade held him up with an iron grip on the jaw-breaking Spanish ring-bit.
The smooth canon bed was only a few yards below when, at the last sharp twist in the descent, the still air vibrated with a sibilant rattle. Slade's pony snorted and jumped sideways, leaving Lennon a clear view of the big diamond-back rattlesnake that lay coiled in the middle of the trail. The gaping jaws of the angry snake and the peculiar billowing of its body so fixed Lennon's gaze that he only half glimpsed the final stumble of Slade's pony.
Unable to keep his footing among the loose stones of the side slope, the exhausted animal plunged headlong. Slade managed to fling himself clear, but fell prone on the sharp-edged stones. His nose was skinned and one cheek gashed. He bounded up, fairly beside himself with rage, and began to kick the head of the fallen pony.
The luckless beast struggled to rise, got half to his feet, screamed, and fell over. Something about his hindquarters had been wrenched or torn or broken. Slade swore furiously and jerked out his revolver to fire repeatedly into the body of the struggling beast. The fourth shot was through the head.
At the sudden stilling of his victim's struggles, the trader's half insane rage cooled from its mad heat without losing any of its virulence. One of the Navahos had dismounted and run forward to stone the rattlesnake. Slade uttered a guttural hissing command. Instead of crushing the snake, the Indian teased it with the butt of his leather quirt.
The reptile lashed out in a vicious stroke. An instant later the Navaho straightened up with his hand gripped about the snake's neck close behind the deadly triangular head. He gave no heed to its five-foot body writhing and coiling about his bare arm.
Slade swung up into the path and looked from the new prisoner to Lennon with a glint in his pale eyes as malignant as the cold glare of the snake.
"You're one of these here science sharps," he jeered. "We'll have you test out if a Gila monster bite fixes a man against rattler poison."
"Rather a costly experiment for you if I prove not to be immune," rallied Lennon. "You must have a keen interest in science so to risk your ten thousand."
"Mebbe. It ain't much of a gamble, though. I stand to rake in twenty thousand if I win, and you ain't liable to let it go as far as the bite."
"Twenty thousand?" questioned Lennon. "If you take Cochise in on this blackmailing scheme, you will have to divide the proceeds with him. Why not keep your bargain and earn your half of the bonus without this risk of losing all?"
The trader's eyes narrowed in crafty calculation. He looked about at the snake and then down at the slaughtered horse. A sudden grin twisted his coarse mouth.
"You're right, son," he chuckled. "Why split the twenty with a dam' Apache? Ain't time now to make the Hole 'fore dark, anyhow—and here's our rawhide. We'll try out that science experiment right here."
He signed for the man with the snake to go on down into the canon bed. The other Indians were already unsaddling the dead burro. Slade muttered a command to them in the thick indistinct intonations of their language. They at once started to flay the pony.
Slade led Lennon's mount down where the snake holder had halted beside a sangre de dragon tree. One of the Indians followed and began to cut stakes from the tree. The sap of the tree was as red as blood and so astringent that when Slade dabbed a little on his cheek the wound at once ceased to bleed.
The flayers soon came with the limp rawhide. Slade turned along the canon to a spot where the rays of the low western sun still slanted down between the cliffs. He spoke again in the Navaho tongue. The Indians drove a stake firmly into the sand and tied the rattlesnake to it with a three-foot thong cut from the pony skin.
Lennon was now pulled from his pony and stretched out, face down, just beyond reach of the snake. Regardless of the bandage on his hand, his arms were jerked out sideways and fastened with yard-long thongs to stakes driven at right angles to a point a foot or so in front of his head. From stakes set on the opposite side of the snake several lines cut from the raw pony hide were flung across past the snake and bound to Lennon's arms at the shoulder.
By hauling on the lines from ahead, the Indians dragged Lennon an inch at a time toward the snake. He heard the sharp ominous rattle, and twisted his head up out of the sand to face the danger. The snake had coiled in front of the first stake. Though its venomous head was drawn back, the long curved fangs of the gaping jaws were less than three feet before Lennon's eyes.
Even as he looked up, the reptile shot forward straight at his face. He involuntarily blinked. In the same instant a drop of fluid spattered against his closed eyelid and he heard a soft thud in the sand close before his chin. A puff of dust whiffed up into his nostrils. It clotted the dew-like drop of liquid on his eyelid.
He opened his eyes in a wide stare. The head of the big rattlesnake lay flat on the sand, less than eight inches before his face. It had lashed out to the full length of the thong. Had the thong broken, or even had its loop about the reptile's neck slipped, the poison-dripping fangs must have lashed Lennon's face.
Intense as were the heat and dryness of the canon bed, Lennon suddenly felt his skin bathed in clammy sweat. For the first time in his life he knew terror. He glared into the cold, malignant eyes of the snake and saw death, certain and horrible. Panic seized him. He writhed and dug his fingers and boot toes into the sand in a frantic attempt to work himself back away from the hideous forward-straining reptile.
The desperate struggle was utterly futile. The lines ahead had been stretched taut and knotted fast to their stakes. With his arms outstretched he could get very little purchase for thrusting himself back against the elastic pull of the rawhide ropes.
But he was no coward. Realization of his helplessness brought him the resignation of despair. With resignation came a stilling of his wild panic. Frantic terror gave way to reasoning thought.
Had his torturer been Cochise, there might have been no room for hope. But Slade was a white man. He might prefer gold to the lust of torture. The death of his victim would mean the loss of the ransom money. Lennon's tense nerves and rigid muscles relaxed. He allowed his upward—and backward-strained head to sink down until one cheek rested upon the hot sand. The change of position brought the top of his head very close to the snake. But he trusted to Slade's avarice to see that he escaped the fangs.
Slade and the Indians had been gloating upon the struggles and terror of their victim. At Lennon's quieting down the trader burst into a derisive laugh.
"Sort of wilted a'ready, huh?" he jeered. "Well, you're wise to take a rest while you still got time. Rawhide shrinks a whole lot when it gits to drying. Only question is how much slower the rattler's whang strap'll shorten up than your lines."
For the first time a clear perception of the real devilishness of the torture flashed into Lennon's abnormally active mind. He was to lie outstretched through the long hours, without food or water, while the shrinking rawhide dragged him with frightful slowness closer and closer to those fangs of death.
The thong of the snake also would be contracting. But it was much the shorter, and therefore would shrink less. The uncertainty of how fast and how much the different fastenings would contract doubled the torturing knowledge that the shrinking must inevitably pull him within reach of the snake.
Physical agony would then soon be added to the mental anguish of dread. For, once the snake's horny snout grazed the top of his head, he would be forced to keep his head raised, on penalty of being pierced by the fangs if he should seek to rest.
Then was when Slade no doubt felt certain that the overstrained nerves of his victim would give way. Lennon foresaw that if worse came to worst, he must agree to terms. After holding up his head as long as his strength lasted, he would be forced to yield. Why not yield at once and save all the torture?
As he asked himself the question, a grateful shadow swept down the canon. The sun was setting. Lennon reconsidered his half-formed decision. During the night the rawhide might continue to shrink a little in the dry air, but the darkness and chill would quiet the snake. It would lie still until sunrise. Time enough to yield when yielding should become inevitable!
"If you'll pardon me, Slade," he said, "I believe I'll take a nap. Good night. Pleasant dreams."
Slade started to curse but ended in a derisive laugh.
"Think you'll four-flush, huh? Well, we'll see after sun-up."
He turned his back on the prisoner and walked over to where the old Navaho was starting a fire for the inevitable flapjacks, bacon, and coffee. The thought of food nauseated Lennon. But he would have given a thousand dollars for one of the canteens of water. Regardless of a hiss from the half-strangled snake, he laid his other cheek over on the cooling sand.
After a time Slade came with a blazing stick for torch to wish him a mocking good night. Lennon smiled back at him with a show of confidence. The trader cursed but soon went off to roll in his blankets. This proved Lennon's surmise that the real test would not come before morning.
He lay for a long time wide-eyed, forcing himself to consider in detail every aspect of the situation and to calculate his chances. Beyond question, Slade intended to murder him. But there was first the ransom money to be secured. Would he wait for it, as in the case of the cowman whom Elsie had told about? Or might he not fall into a rage and destroy his victim as he had killed the pony?
If he could keep his temper, the probabilities were that he would prolong the torture until he had gained his end. After that might come a short respite for the victim.
Lennon next recalled all he knew about snakes and their poison glands. After that he closed his eyes and relaxed both mentally and physically. The cool of nightfall had somewhat eased his thirst and the ache from the strain of the rawhide lines on his shoulders. He dozed off to sleep.
He was so far spent and his last thought so calm that he slept soundly all night. But the chill damp of dewfall roused him at the first graying of dawn. To the shivering of his cramped body from the cold was soon added a shudder of fear and loathing. Against his head, just above the forehead, was pressed a cold hard object—the snout of the rattlesnake.
But the reptile was too torpid from the cold to strike. After a time the slight moistening of the rawhide by the dew enabled Lennon to force himself back nearly an inch. This was at sunrise. Slade came to gloat at his struggle.
"Go it," he mocked. "Wiggle while you can. Both them lines and the rattler'll git busy soon's the sun hets up a bit. Excuse me while I feed. I'll git back in time for the fun."
The breakfast fire was beside a patch of thorn scrub several yards away. Lennon watched until his enemy had sat down on the sand opposite the Navahos. He then lifted his head.
The first rays of the sun had begun to warm the snake. At Lennon's movement it stirred sluggishly. The dull eyes began to brighten with the glare of returning life and anger. Lennon dropped his head forward.
Enraged by the feigned attack, the snake struck. The long fangs came so near their mark that Lennon felt them or the snout pass through his hair. Spurts of venom from the overcharged poison glands sprayed in against his scalp.
For the second time since being pegged out Lennon felt his skin go clammy with cold sweat. His flesh crept with horror. Death had grazed him by a fraction of an inch. Another stroke might break or loosen the snake's bond. Yet he nerved himself again and shook his head from side to side.
The movement roused the snake to fury. It lashed out in stroke after stroke. But the very excess of the reptile's anger quickly exhausted its strength. The hideous head flattened down on the sand.
A sideward glance told Lennon that his deadly play had not been heeded by Slade and the Navahos. But he knew he had no time to spare. He filled his parched mouth with sand and raised his head. The snake did not move.
Lennon blew sand into the glaring eyes of the rattler. The jaws gaped angrily. He blew all the remaining sand in between the high-curved fangs. The snake struck viciously and sank down, inert. A film closed over the sand-filled eyes.
By pulling himself forward, Lennon gained a little relaxing of the thongs that held his arms outstretched. He drew up his knees and flung his body up and forward. From a height of several inches his breast came down squarely upon the head of the snake, with all the weight of his body in the blow.
When Slade rushed cursing from the fire, Lennon lay in what appeared to be a swoon, with the body of the rattlesnake writhing about his head. At the angry bellow of the trader the Indians came running to slash Lennon's bonds and jerk him away from the snake.
Slade ripped out an astounded oath.
"He's beaten the game!" he cried.
The head of the reptile had been crushed.
The trader possibly may have been overcome with admiration for his victim's courage. More probably he was moved by the need to keep him alive for further torture. He signed one of the Navahos to use his canteen. Lennon had feigned unconsciousness in the hope of this result.
He permitted a good quart of water to trickle down his parched throat before he showed signs of reviving. Even after he thought best to feign stupor no longer he made a show of great weakness. When jerked to his feet by the Indians, he tottered and crumpled down again. Slade swore, but ordered food and coffee brought.
Lennon's tongue was still too swollen for him to eat much of the greasy solids. The strong coffee, however, both stimulated him and completed the quenching of his thirst. The old Navaho held the spout of the big tin coffee pot to his lips and poured until the last drop of muddy black fluid drained from the grounds.
The ponies were saddled, and Lennon was lifted upon his mount none too gently. He swayed in the saddle and clutched the horn. Slade made a sign for the prisoner's hands to be left unbound. During the ride up the canon Lennon continued to feign weakness, lurching and swaying in the saddle.
Slade had taken the pinto pony of the youngest Navaho, who rode double with one of the other men. The five miles to the cliff break in the canon bed, down which they had been lowered in the basket, was covered at a lope.
As the party came galloping to the under ledges Slade bellowed a deep-chested hail that boomed in loud reverberations upon the lofty precipices of the canon sides. But no answering cry came down from the cliff, nor was there any sign of the hoist cage basket.
The old Navaho raised a shrill quavering wail that carried like the howl of a coyote. Again the reverberating echoes ran up the precipices and slowly died out far above, and again no response came from the top of the cross barrier.
"The lazy skunks!" growled Slade. "Off watch, huh? Keep me waiting, will they? I'll tan their dirty hides for 'em."
He rode down canon a few yards and emptied his revolver into the air, firing the shots in couples. This time the echoes had not died out skyward before a dark face with cloth-bound forehead peered down from the brink of the cross cliff. Slade roared up an angry command—and abruptly fell silent.
The downlooker was making some quick gestures. Slade flung up his hand in an answering gesture. The signaller disappeared. Slade shouted an order to the best mounted of his men. The Navaho wheeled his pony and raced away down canon on the back trail.
The basket cage of the lift swung out over the cliff brink. It began to lower. Regardless of hoof marks, Slade spurred his pony up the foot ledges. Lennon followed with the others.
A glance at the trader's face had told him danger was toward.
Lennon could think of but two explanations. Either a band of vengeful cattlemen had discovered and attacked the rustlers' secret stronghold, or Cochise had returned and taken advantage of Slade's absence to carry out his designs against Elsie.
The man sent back by Slade evidently was riding to summon reinforcements of Navahos from the pueblo. Whether they were to be used against the Apaches or to aid them against an outside posse was the question. If the first were the case, Lennon felt that he must be armed to fight.
The thought of either Elsie or Carmena in the clutches of Cochise filled him with dread and horror. The suspense of the uncertainty was unbearable. He forced his pony up beside the trader's pinto while the basket cage was yet several feet overhead.
"See here, Slade," he said, "you've given me a rough deal. But we're both white men. We can't permit Cochise to have Farley's girls. That is unthinkable. I'll agree to forget the snake. Give me my rifle and we'll go through with our bargain."
"Like hell we will!" growled the trader. "Minute I turned my back you'd pot me."
"No," pledged Lennon. "I give you my word."
Slade continued to scowl with surly suspicion.
"Guess we'll take a look first. Git a move on you. Pile in. No time to hoist the hosses."
He swung from his saddle, with Lennon's rifle in one hand and his own in the other. Both cartridge belts were buckled about his massive body. He sprang into the wicker cage of the lift as it bumped upon the ledge. Lennon and the three Navahos crowded in after him.
The Indian above peered over the cliff brink. At a signal from the Navaho he again vanished. The hoist rope tautened. With a creak, the cage scraped on the ledge and began to swing up the cliff face above the abandoned horses.
To Lennon the ascent seemed maddeningly slow. The Navahos leaned against the wicker sides of the cage in stolid silence, their faces more than ever like bronze images. None cast a glance upward. But Slade could not hide his mingled uneasiness and anger.
"Didn't think the young devil had the gall," he muttered. "Acting like he'd been bit by a hydrophoby skunk. Nothing meaner 'n a mad wolf. I'd 'a' give him Carmena quick enough.... Learn her not to pass up a white man agin when she had her chance. But the young gal—— Blast Cochise. When I told him flat——"
The cage crept up over the brink of the cliff. One of the Navahos leaped high to grasp the guy rope of the crane. His pull swung crane and cage around toward the horse windlass. The moment the occupants jumped from the cage the Navaho allowed the crane to swing out again over the cliff edge. The pony that was hitched to the bar of the windlass started to lower the cage by reversing at a jog trot.
Though the Indian with the pony wore an Apache head cloth, Lennon recognized his ugly young face at the first clear view. He was Pete, the Navaho who had been with the Apaches under the cliff house on the day that Cochise had trapped Lennon and Carmena. Slade's manner toward him was that of a half-distrustful master. He questioned him hastily in English.
Pete answered haltingly, with frequent lapses into the gutturals and hissings of his native tongue. His eyes glittered with fierce excitement. Lennon gathered that Cochise and his men were in the midst of an attack on the cliff house. This would seem to prove that the girls were still safe—and would remain safe. How could the Apaches hope to scale the sheer cliff without aid from above?
But Slade's scowl showed that the situation by no means pleased him. He mounted Pete's pony and rushed the party up to the head of the canon. Instead of preparing to hold this position until the arrival of his reinforcements, he kept on up the valley at a jog trot. Once clear of the canon, Lennon could make out the sound of distant shots echoing down the valley along the cliffs.
Within the first half mile the rescuers came upon a drove of big American horses. Every one showed signs of cruel driving over rocks and through thornscrub and cactus. When they scented the Navahos they snorted with terror, and all but two managed to bolt clear.
In a trice the Indians had each of the frightened pair bridled with a leather thong fast about the lower jaw. Pete mounted the better animal. Slade drew rein beside the other horse and glowered at Lennon.
"How about it?" he demanded. "You said you'd back me up. How do I know I can count on you not knifing me?"
"You have my word," replied Lennon, striving hard to repress his eagerness.
The irregular firing up the valley became more rapid. Slade scowled and thrust out Lennon's high-power rifle.
"It's a go—that new deal. Take your belt, too. Guess I can count on you till Cochise is made a good Indian."
With the white men and Pete mounted and the unmounted Navahos each gripping the mane of a horse, the party rushed up the valley at redoubled speed. Midway Slade angled down into the bed of an arroyo that curved around on the right of the corral and up to the mouth of Hell Canon. Though the horses were kept at a fast trot, the Navahos ran along beside them, seemingly without effort.
As the head of the valley was neared, the irregular crackling roar of the rifle shots abruptly ceased. Lennon's heart skipped a beat. The sudden hush might mean that Cochise had given up his attack on the cliff house. On the other hand, it might be due to an overwhelming of the defense.
Slade sent one of his men springing up the side of the arroyo. The Navaho glanced over the edge of the bank toward the cliff house and dashed obliquely back into the dry channel, his hand twisting in swift signs. Slade held on up the arroyo. Near the mouth of Hell Canon he flung himself off and motioned Lennon to follow.
The old Navaho led the way up the side of the reservoir, with Pete a close second. Near the top the leaders flattened down to crawl over the round of the ancient dam. The others crept after them. A muttered command from Slade had kept Lennon in the rear. But a sudden fresh outburst of shots cut short his frightful suspense. The Apaches had neither abandoned their attack nor had they yet captured the cliff house.
Elation, mingled with renewed fear for the girls, sent Lennon scrambling up beside the leaders. He came to where they were peering over the crest of the dam. Slade growled a command for the fool tenderfoot to get down out of sight. But after Lennon's first look across the top of the embankment main force would have been required to drag him back.
He had already guessed that Pete had stolen away down into the lower canon, unknown to the Apaches. The only other explanation was that the Navaho had been posted as guard at the cross cliff. This was improbable, as the only need for watchers was to help in-comers up the otherwise impassable barrier. That Pete had not been missed was evident from the failure of the Apaches to oppose the rush of the rescuers up the valley.
The mystery of how Cochise hoped to take the cliff house became clear to Lennon at the first glance. The ancient stronghold was less than half a mile away from the reservoir. In the crystal-clear air Lennon made out a crooked line of poles and what appeared to be three or four sacks of corn lying upon the cliff foot. Above these objects eight or nine Apaches were raising a long ladder of spliced poles against the face of the rock wall. The fallen poles were the shattered remains of a first ladder that had collapsed.
The ladder raisers were protected in their work by the incessant shooting of the other members of the band. From a crescent of positions well out in the valley the riflemen poured a cross-fire of bullets into all the openings of the cliff house. The Indian at the nearest end of the crescent lay not more than a hundred yards beyond the far side of the reservoir.
Even as Lennon grasped the plan of attack, the heavy-butted ladder came to an upright position directly under the main doorway of the cliff house. On the instant a pair of nimble Apaches scrambled to the top, dragging with them a shorter ladder. They hoisted it above them and spliced its foot to the head of the main one.
No less swiftly, another ladder was passed up and lashed to the top of the second. The new top reached within two yards of the brink of the forty-foot cliff. A third Apache started to carry up a short ladder. After he passed the middle of the ascent, his weight, added to that of the men above, made the much-spliced main ladder bow and sway.
One of the upper men crawled through the rungs to wedge himself between the top and the cliff. The third man handed up the short ladder and began to creep down again. The second topman gingerly hoisted the last link in the shaky line of ascent.
The Apaches lying out from the cliff concentrated their fire on the opening above the ladder. For any one in the cliff house to have ventured into the doorway would have meant certain death.
Protected by the storm of bullets, the topmost Apache held up the last ladder while his mate against the cliff spliced it fast. The top rung stood level with the sill of the doorway.
The third man had stopped his descent ten or fifteen feet below. As soon as the splicing was secure, the first man drew something from the belt of his breech-clout and started up the last rungs.
Lennon could restrain himself no longer. He thrust his rifle forward to take aim. From beside him a big hairy red hand reached out to clutch the barrel. Slade's deep voice growled a command:
"Wait! If they ain't got Carmena a'ready——"
"But if once he gets in!" cried Lennon. "He must have a revolver!"
"Knife too," added Slade. "Wait, though. We'll all put our sights on him. But don't shoot unless he gits half through the door."
A glance at the Navahos showed Lennon that they were already taking aim. The trader clearly had some good reason for waiting. Lennon nodded.
"Very well," he agreed.
Slade drew back his hand. As Lennon again took aim he saw the first of the Apache attackers thrust up an arm to grasp the corner of the sill stone. The man paused while the riflemen poured an extra violent volley of bullets into the doorway. He then made a quick gesture.
The shots continued, but they were aimed high. Otherwise the attacker must have been struck as he flung himself up before the opening. The catlike movement brought him head and shoulders above the sill. He twisted forward to writhe into the doorway. Lennon's finger started to crook against the trigger of his rifle. But he did not fire.
Instead of thrusting forward, the Apache straightened upright with convulsive suddenness. His out-clutching arms beat the empty air. He toppled sideways and plunged headlong.
"Through the brain!" chuckled Slade. "No, they ain't got Carmena—yet."
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN——
Before the falling Apache smashed down upon the cliff foot the man who had last climbed the long ladder made an upward rush. He was within half a dozen rungs of the top when a large round object rolled out of the doorway. With the quickness of a puma he swung off to one side.
The big missile grazed past the dodger. Three or four yards farther down it crashed upon the ladder. All the mid section of the wobbly structure was shattered to flinders. The lower part slithered sideways along the cliff face, the upper part and the two climbers plunged downward.
The cliffs rang with the yells of the ladder holders as they leaped away. They bounded like startled deer. But one was struck in the back by the splintered end of a falling ladder pole. He pitched on his face, rolled over, and lay as still as the fallen climbers.
"Four!" exultantly exclaimed Slade. "Four—done up by a keg of water. And the three first"—Lennon had thought them sacks of corn at the foot of the ladder—"seven, and Pete with us—leaves less 'n twenty of 'em, counting Cochise. And mebbe Carmena has potted one or two more out in the scrub."
"You'll attack?" asked Lennon.
"Sure. No chance of holding Cochise after him losing them men. The others would turn on him like mad coyotes if he backed up. Just hold your hosses a bit, though, till I tell you."
Lennon impatiently glanced away from his rifle sights. For the first time he saw that the Navahos were no longer alongside him. Pete was creeping aslant the dam toward the cliffs. The three others had circled to the left and were disappearing into the irrigation canal where it curved down valley below the reservoir.
"Got to flush them snakes in the grass," explained Slade. "Pick your mark and wait. I'll start off with this here devil across the tank."
The scattered ladder raisers were bunching again close under the cliff, to one side of the cliff house openings. One of them made signs to the outlying riflemen. The others began to work on the broken ladders. The firing had almost ceased.
Slade moved a few yards along the dam. Lennon drew back his rifle, looked carefully at the lock and magazine, and took up a position from which he could fire with the greatest rapidity. He had been ready only a few minutes when from the irrigation canal, down the valley behind the Apache riflemen, came the reports of three shots, fired in rapid succession.
A fourth shot roared from Slade's rifle. Lennon began to fire as fast as he could take aim. His mark was the group of Apaches on the cliff foot. One fell and lay motionless. Another tumbled over, but rebounded to join in the dash of his companions down the slope.
The bare ledges of the cliff foot offered no shelter. The nearest cover was the ruined Farley ranch hut, a hundred yards or more away, in the direction of the reservoir. But as the Apaches raced for the refuge first one of their leaders and then another pitched to the ground.
The others swerved and went flying out toward the irrigation canal. A burst of shots from the canal again forced them to swerve. They fled toward a patch of rocks and cactus in the direction of Devil's Chute. Only four reached the cover.
As Lennon had emptied his magazine during the first few seconds, he knew that he could not have shot more than one of the fugitives. The three Navahos had spread out along the canal, and Pete had hidden at the ruined hut. They had the Apaches under fire from flank and rear. Slade had dodged down to run around the head of the reservoir and leap the inlet canal.
The thwack and screech of a glanced bullet that flicked a spurt of gravel into Lennon's face, warned him that the Navahos were not doing all the firing. Though so many of the Apaches had been killed in the surprise of the counter attack, the survivors of the band still outnumbered the rescuers two or three to one.
Lennon knew enough to creep back under the round of the dam. Once safe below the crest, he sprinted after Slade at top speed. He was under cover until he leaped the inlet canal and skirted along the natural rock rim on the far side of the reservoir.
The problem now was to find a sheltered way from the brink of the rim over and down into the Farleys' kitchen garden. Slade had somehow made the crossing. He was safe in a position of vantage at the goat pens.
Before Lennon could locate the sheltered line of descent he noticed that some of the shots sounded from farther down the valley. His first thought was that more Apaches were coming to join in the fight. Slade's reinforcements from the pueblo could not be expected before late in the day.
For a moment the situation appeared truly desperate. The odds were already heavy enough, without the addition of more Apaches. But a cautious peep over the rock rim disclosed to Lennon the happy truth. Out-manoeuvred and cut off from the best cover, the Apaches were beginning to fall back down the valley.
By close scrutiny, Lennon made out a brown form wriggling away behind a clump of cactus that shut off the view of Slade and the Navahos. At the second bullet from the high-power rifle the creeping Apache rolled over. There was no need for a third shot.
After this hit Lennon saw not the slightest sign of the retreating band. But he continued to rake the rocks and cactus clumps with frequent shots, while the Navahos in the ditch followed along the flank of their half-exposed enemies.
Lennon became aware that shots were being fired from the cliff house. Soon afterward he saw Slade rush boldly along the cliff foot. The Apaches were too intent upon flight to fire at the now distant enemies in their rear. One glance at the trader sent Lennon bounding up over the rim of rock and down the slope.
The rope ladder dropped from the cliff house doorway. By the time Lennon reached the tumbledown ranch hut Slade was at the top of the ladder and Pete was beginning to climb. Lennon dashed on along the cliff foot. He gave no heed to the dead Apaches that lay huddled or sprawled amidst the wreckage of the wooden ladder poles and rungs. At the foot of the rope ladder he thrust his rifle through the back of his belt and swung up as fast as he could climb.
Before he had ascended twenty feet a half-spent bullet thudded against the cliff face at his elbow. Another grazed his side. At least one of the distant Apaches had turned about and was making uncomfortably close shots at the climber. Lennon stopped short. A bullet struck less than a span above his head. He hurried on up by irregular jerks and dashes.
More bullets struck around him. One seared his thigh. Owing, however, either to sheer good fortune or to his jerky ascent, he reached the top of the ladder without a serious wound.
Pete lay flattened out in the doorway behind a sack of corn. He was firing down the valley. Lennon flung himself in past the young Navaho. Safe within the cliff house, he reeled against the massive wall and stood panting for breath.
From the doorway of the living room came a happy cry. Elsie darted out to fling her arms about Lennon.
"Oh! oh! oh! You did get up, Jack—you did!" she cried. "Mena was dreadfully afraid for you. The 'Paches have killed one of Slade's punchers and are chasing the others back."
Lennon kissed the quivering girl and thrust her from him to grasp his rifle.
"We're safe now, Blossom. But I must help to cover the retreat of our men."
He ran to the crane-hoist opening. Slade was crouched behind a barricade of corn-filled sacks, hotly blazing away down the valley. Lennon hurried on into the living room.
Beside the nearest outer window Farley lay upon a pile of rugs very white and still. His neck and right leg were swathed in bandages. The rifle under the window showed that the broken drunkard had not lacked courage to join in the defense of his home.
Carmena stood at the next window, too intent upon her firing to heed her exposed position. A bullet had grazed the side of her head. At sight of the blood trickling down on her cheek Lennon felt an almost irresistible impulse to run over and draw her out of danger.
But the angle of the girl's rifle barrel told him that the fight was rapidly coming back up the valley. He sprang to Farley's window. As he looked down, the two Navahos broke from the last scant cover and came leaping and zigzagging up toward the cliff foot.
Lennon thrust out his rifle and began to pump shots at the scrub and cactus clumps above which rose thin puffs of semi-smokeless powder. A bullet nipped the point of his shoulder. He jumped back to refill his magazine. Before he could again empty it, another bullet seared across the top of his head. He reeled and fell senseless.
When he recovered consciousness he was first aware of the face of Carmena. In his first daze, he fancied that he was out on the far side of the Basin, lying upon the sand under the cliff where the Gila monster had bitten his hand. The girl's eyes were clouded with the same look of profound concern that he had then seen in their shadowy depths.
But as his own gaze cleared he noticed two marked differences in her appearance. One of her pale cheeks was streaked with crimson, and the dark eyes were wide not with dread alone. They gazed down at him heavy with the anguish of mingled grief and yearning. He knew that he was looking into the girl's inmost heart.
A hand was thrust between their faces—a little dimpled hand that held a bowl of red liquid. Elsie's voice quavered urgently:
"Let me fix your hurt with the dragon sap, Mena. He's alive again."
Carmena's long lashes drooped upon her white cheeks. She drew back. Lennon turned aside his violently aching head. Across the living room he saw Pete cauterizing a bullet wound on the bare arm of a fellow Navaho with the astringent red sap of the sangre de dragon tree.
Elsie noticed Lennon's roving look of inquiry.
"They shot the other one on the ladder," she explained. "But Slade isn't hurt, and he hauled the ladder up. Cochise can't get us now."
"Not now," whispered Carmena. "But if Slade——"
Her low-pitched voice broke and hushed to a frightened silence.
Slade swaggered in from the anteroom and stood grinning as if very well satisfied with what he saw.
INTO THE FIRE
Carmena rallied and smiled up at the big trader with a show of trustful confidence. "I knew you'd keep your part of the deal, Mr. Slade," she said. "You've fought off Cochise and saved us, and there's a good big hole in his bunch. All we need do now is wait for your punchers to come in and wipe out the rest."
"Sure!" agreed Slade. "I done it. Now I got a dead cinch all 'round."
He drew his revolver and twirled the cylinder as if to make certain that it had been fully reloaded.
"Yep—a dead cinch. With me up here, Cochise won't try no more pole ladders. You and my Cookie Gal better hustle up some feed. Ain't had nothing but bacon and flapjacks since I left."
Elsie fluttered across to light her charcoal brazier. But Carmena lingered beside Lennon.
"Huh," muttered Slade. "Where'd sonny boy git hit? Ain't plunked bad, is he?"
"Oh, no. I——"
"No, not fatal," Carmena broke in on Lennon's disclaimer of serious injury. She gave Slade a significant side glance.
"No, I'm sure it won't prove fatal—just cut the bone a bit. Jack'll get over it all right if he keeps perfectly quiet."
Slade's big face took on a look of solemn concern.
"Quiet—huh? Can't let him take no risks. He's worth ten thousand to me. Here, you, Pete—and you——"
A guttural command in Navaho and a careless wave of the revolver brought Pete and his wounded but still active companion hurrying forward.
Carmena sprang up and held out her arms to the trader. Lennon failed to see her face. He saw only how Slade swept his left arm about the girl and swung her around in a bearlike embrace. Lennon sought to leap up. The Navahos seized him on either side and forced him down again.
He caught a glimpse of Carmena futilely clutching for Slade's throat. The big man burst into a bellow of contemptuous laughter and flung her from him.
"Bah!" he jeered. "What you bucking about? Don't figger I want you any more, do you?"
"No—no, of course not. I—— But Jack's head—If you hogtie him——"
"Got to be kept quiet, ain't he? You said it yourself. What you hanging fire for, Pete?"
The heavy revolver swung around in another seemingly careless gesture. Pete and the wounded Navaho hogtied Lennon with expert quickness.
Slade shifted around to nudge Farley in the ribs with the toe of his cowhide boot. The badly wounded man stirred and opened his haggard eyes to blink at the disturber.
"Has—Cochise—— What! you?" he murmured. "You have run off the devils? Girls safe?"
"You bet they're safe, Dad. How you feeling? Looks like they plugged you pretty bad."
"Very—very bad," gasped Farley. "I—do not expect to—survive."
"Aw, keep a stiff upper lip. You'll pull through."
Farley's discoloured eyelids quivered and drooped. Slade had been peering sideways at the rigidly posed Carmena. He laughed good-humouredly, put up his revolver, and grinned toward Elsie.
"I smell grub—real grub. Carmena, you git over to the far window and keep a lookout while I feed up. Just leave your gun lie. We don't want to rile up Cochise till we git him cornered."
The girl looked at Lennon and hesitated. Slade rested his hand on his hip. She hurried off to the window toward which he had pointed.
Seated alone at the table, the trader feasted upon the food set before him by Elsie. While he gormandized he tormented the shrinking girl with his coarse gallantry. When at last his gluttonous appetite was satisfied he called for another pie. Elsie obediently brought the last of her baking and bent over the corner of the table to set it before him.
With the quickness of a striking grizzly, Slade lunged forward and clutched her soft round arm. At her startled shriek he wrenched his massive body half around and menaced everyone in the room with a sweeping wave of his revolver.
Lennon had been bound too tightly to do more than writhe. Pete and his fellow Navaho stood as if turned to stone. But Farley had twisted about on the floor, and Carmena was springing away from her outlook window toward the table. The revolver barrel paused in line with her forward-rushing figure.
"Stop!" bellowed Slade.
The savage roar threatened instant death. Carmena came to a sudden halt. She stood panting and quivering, her face white, her eyes dilated with horror.
"Huh! Thought you'd rush me, did you?" growled the trader. "You didn't stop any too soon to save your bacon, you she-wildcat. Stand still now, or you'll git gentled with a club."
"But—but, Mr. Slade——" gasped the horror-stricken girl. "Blossom—she's only a child. She's so young and—and innocent! Oh, won't you—won't you please take me instead?"
"You?" sneered the trader. "Jealous, are you? Well, you're too late now. Wouldn't take me when you had the chance. Now I wouldn't have you even if I couldn't git her."
"But she—little Blossom! Oh, you can't—you can't be so heartless! You promised to wait——"
"Wait?" Slade jerked the half-fainting Elsie around the corner of the table.
"Ain't I waited all this time? This is same as Injun country, and squaws mate-up young. I'm going to take my Cookie Gal now. Sabe? Injun marriage is good enough 'round these parts for any woman, white or red."
"You—beast!" cried Carmena, and she flung herself at him in a fury of despair.
A few seconds before he would have shot her down. Now, instead of firing, he released his hold on Elsie's arm and thrust out to meet the frantic rush of her foster-sister. The big red hand clutched fast on Carmena's throat and held her off at arm's length. Contemptuously heedless of her frenzied struggles, he fixed a hard stare on Pete.
"You," he ordered, "git a hustle on. Rope this hellcat, pronto."
Though Pete's hesitancy was almost imperceptible, Slade's revolver swung up toward him. The young Navaho sprang forward, jabbering to his fellow tribesman. As the two seized and started to bind Carmena, Slade grinned at her, derisively.
"Guess you wish you hadn't," he jeered. "I'll learn you who's boss. How'll you like being let down to Cochise, huh?"
The danger to Elsie had horrified and enraged Lennon no less than Carmena. He had been writhing in his rawhide bonds, in a furious struggle to break loose. Now he lay exhausted and hopeless, his wrists and ankles cut and bleeding from the cruelly tight thongs. Even the hideous threat against Carmena could not goad his flaccid muscles to renewed efforts.
Behind him he heard a peculiar wheezing. He twisted his head about to look. Farley was creeping along the floor. As Lennon caught sight of him, the desperately wounded man clutched his rifle and straightened up on his knees. His ghastly face was blotched with angry purple. His sunken eyes flamed with vengeful fire. He raised the muzzle of the rifle toward Slade with the last flare of his failing strength.
"You scoundrel!" he shrilled. "Harm my daughter, would you?"
Slade's savage bellow was drowned in the crash of the rifle. The bull-like roar of the trader sharpened to a yell of pain. An instant later two answering shots came back at the swaying avenger.
Farley fell upon his back, with his arms outflung crosswise and his glazing eyes upturned. As he lived, so he had died—futilely. Yet he had at least made the attempt to rise above his weakness and degeneracy. He had died like a man.
Slade stood at the end of the table, mopping the base of his neck with his dirty neckerchief. The rifle had missed his jugular vein by little more than an inch. He cauterized the wound with sangre de dragon sap, cursing blasphemously and barking commands at the Navahos.
Pete ran to signal from the nearest window. His companion hurried to make certain that Farley was dead. Slade shouldered past the half-bound Carmena and came to stare gloatingly down at Lennon. Between his thick legs Lennon saw Carmena twist about and roll over toward her terror-stricken sister. Slade was too intent upon mocking his other prisoner to look about at the girls.
"Well, son, you seen what happened to Dad, trying to murder his pard," he admonished. "Hope it'll be a warning to you. I'm a peaceful man. I got to have law and order. Cochise ripped loose with his bunch. You seen how I smashed his play. 'Fore night my Navahos'll clean up what's left of 'em all."
Lennon choked down his rage and loathing. Not he alone was in the power of this brutal scoundrel. For the sake of the girls he must play for time.
"Yes, to be sure!" he said. "That was clever generalship on your part, Slade. As for Farley—you of course had to shoot him, in self-defense. But now all is settled. You will keep your word to go through with your bargain."
"I will, will I, huh?"
"How else? We have had our little misunderstandings. But you are a white man and you gave your word to go through with our deal."
The trader's face blackened with a ferocious scowl.
"Try to be funny with me, will you? I'll skin you alive!"
"You misunderstood me, quite," said Lennon, soothingly. "How could I think other than that you intend to keep your bargain. I mentioned it because I wish to suggest an addition to the terms. If you will release Carmena and postpone your marriage to Elsie until we can get a license and a minister, I shall be pleased to give five thousand toward the bride's trousseau."
For a long moment Slade stood glowering, morosely suspicious of the proposal. When he sensed its precise meaning, he burst into mocking laughter.
"So that's what you're after, huh? Think you can bribe me, do you? Well, just let me tell you, sonny boy—when I want a squaw I take her. As for that she-wildcat, she's going down to Cochise right now. What's more, you're going with her if you don't agree to write that mine report and shell out the whole twenty thousand."
"You devil!" cried Lennon. "I'll give you all—everything I possess—to save the girls from you. But if you harm either one of them—if you refuse to set them both free—you shall not have a dollar of my money."
"Huh—I sha'n't, sha'n't I?"
"Not a cent! You are a thief, a murderer, a liar—and you know it. Your word is not to be trusted. Take your choice. Kill me, or accept my pledge to pay you the money when you have brought me and the girls safe to the nearest town."
The corner of Slade's coarse lip drew up in a wolfish snarl.
"Kill you? Just wait and see. Killing's a heap too easy. Wait till Cochise has had a little fun with you. Mebbe you won't agree to be reasonable then, huh?"
The pale eyes of the trader glittered with cold malevolence as he swung around to the window from which Pete was signalling. He boldly thrust his head out and shouted to the Apaches in their own tongue. From below came an answering shout. Slade called down to them for several moments in hissing thick-tongued gutturals.
When at last he drew back and faced about, his mouth was twisted in a grin of evil satisfaction. He stared across the room, blinked, and stared again, with his grin distorted into an angry grimace.
Carmena lay where he had last seen her. But Elsie was nowhere in sight.
The inaction of the trader was brief. At his harsh question the wounded Navaho thrust out a slim finger toward one of the rear exits from the living room. Slade spoke a fierce command to Pete in the Navaho tongue and rushed out through the opening to which the Indian had pointed.
Carmena uttered a horrified cry and sought to struggle up on her bound feet. As she fell, Pete and the other Navaho caught hold of her. They carried her out into the anteroom, without paying the slightest heed to Lennon's threats and pleadings. He writhed and twisted himself toward the doorway. Before he had reached the opening, the wounded Navaho bounded back into the room. He seized Lennon and dragged him out.
Pete had squatted down to fasten a loop of the hoist rope about Carmena, who lay behind the sacks of corn that barricaded the crane-hoist entrance. She was speaking rapidly to the young Navaho in mingled Spanish and English. At sight of the other Navaho and Lennon she paused.
Pete took the opportunity to mutter a sullen reply:
"Basta. Slade, him bad med'cine. Me no fight him. You go Cochise, muy pronto."
"Wait!" urged the girl. "You want me to be your woman. Remember what I promised if you'd help Slade to get up the canon against Cochise. I'll promise more now. I'll give you all those horses and cattle—and I'll give you myself. Sabe? I'll be your woman."
The Indian's eyes gleamed with avid desire. But he did not falter.
"Woman no good, me dead."
"Afraid—you girl!" taunted Carmena. "He's only a man. A single shot will kill him. You have only to——"
"Basta. Him big devil. Me no shoot him. Him say you go Cochise, muy pronto."
The stubborn coward turned away toward the windlass. Carmena glared after him in agonized desperation.
"All right—all right, Pete!" she cried. "Lower me to Cochise. But listen! You needn't fight Slade or any one. You heard how he fooled Cochise—made him feel good by promising him me and Jack?"
"Me send you down, pronto."
"Yes—yes. Only first, if you want me to be your woman, listen. You lower me, I make bargain with Cochise and——"
The rest of the fiercely urgent proposal was in Spanish. Pete came to a pause and cast a stealthy glance at his fellow Navaho. The man had dragged Lennon out past the windlass and turned back to grasp the crank handle.
"You damn sure Cochise him no kill me? You no lie?" demanded Pete.
"Won't you be proving you are his friend?" countered the girl. "You know Slade only half trusts you. He'll be sure to shoot you, soon as his punchers come. How about it? Do you promise? It's your only chance to get me, so long as you daren't tackle Slade yourself."
"Slade, him big devil. Injun no can——"
"Just wait and see," broke in Carmena. "Remember, there'll be tizwin for you—all you can drink—heaps of tizwin!"
"Ugh!" grunted Pete. "Slade no come. Bueno—me do him you say."
He grunted to the other Navaho and swung the crane outward as the tightening rope lifted the girl above the sacks of corn. She disappeared from view below the barrier. The Navaho lowered away with a deliberation that set Lennon's teeth on edge. The strain on his nerves was not lessened by the total silence of the waiting Apaches down below.
At last the rope slackened. After a brief pause it was rapidly wound in on the barrel of the windlass. Pete had already dragged Lennon to the opening and heaved him up on the barricade. When the rope loop came up to the crane, he jerked it in, made fast to Lennon, and shoved him off into space.
Lennon plunged down nearly a dozen feet before the tautened rope stopped his fall with a violent jerk. He hung dangling, with nothing between him and the wreckage-strewn ledges of the cliff foot, thirty feet beneath.
The first jerk had started his body to gyrating. The rapidity with which he was lowered increased the movement. By the time he reached the cliff foot he was spinning like a roast before an old-time fireplace.
At first he had been able to make out Carmena standing in the midst of a close group of Apaches. But she and the Indians and the cliff wall had all merged into a blurred whirl before his dizzy eyes by the time he struck the cliff foot. With the slackening of the rope he rolled over, too giddy even to attempt to steady himself with his bound hands.
While his eyes were yet too dazed for clear vision, he heard Carmena's voice, low-pitched and vibrant with passionate pleading:
"... And him too, Cochise. I'm not asking you to give up your fun with him. Only wait till you've made sure of Slade. There's not a second to lose. You have us. We can't get away. But if you don't do what I ask, you won't get Slade. He'll be up there—safe—with your woman! And his Navahos will trap you here in the Hole."
"You lie!" grunted the young Apache. "Slade send you down to git his noose on me. I haul up pony lift—hit out Hell Canon—take you and white fool. Heap fun with you and him!"
"What then?" queried Carmena. "You know you'll have Slade on your trail—Slade and a posse and the soldiers. Slade will have to wipe you out to cover up what we've been doing here. He'll lay it all on you and your bunch—all the stealing. Can't you see? If he can't wipe you out himself, he'll set the soldiers on your trail."
Lennon looked up and saw before his clearing eyes the dark evilly handsome face of the Apache leader. It was as stolid as the faces of his incomprehending followers. But his black eyes were fierce with hate.
"You lie!" he repeated. "You say, kill Slade. You say you no care what become of you."
"Because I know you, Cochise," cajoled the girl, her voice soft and confiding. "Weren't we friends before Slade came? Weren't we good to you? Remember how we kept you hid in the Hole and never told the Indian Agent? You'll not forget that. You'll treat me and Jack, my new pard, all right when I've helped you kill Slade."
"Dam' friend—you," jeered the Indian. "You kept my woman."
"What if I did? How about now? Do you want Slade to have her? You know he has been scheming all along to take her from you. Are you going to let him do it? Think about her—and about the tizwin—that tizwin hidden from you by Slade—barrels of tizwin! All yours if only you have the nerve to go up after Slade!"
Cochise looked up the cliff, with a sudden ferocious scowl. Lennon was gasping for breath against the frightfulness of what he had heard. To save herself, Carmena was betraying her foster-sister to the fiendish savage. Elsie's fate in the hands of Slade was fearful enough without the added horror of what she would suffer in the hands of Cochise.
"Carmena!" he cried. "Carmena, are you mad? Think of Blossom! What does it matter if we are tortured? Surely you can't intend——"
"Why not?" cried back the girl, her face aflame with vengeful anger. "That big beast first ruined my father; now he has murdered him. Cochise, you'll have to choose quickly. Run off with us and have your fun, and have Slade trail you down; or kill him and get your woman and the tizwin—barrels of tizwin!"
The young Apache plucked out his knife and sprang at the girl. A stroke slashed through the thongs that bound her wrists. Her ankles had already been freed. Cochise made a sharp upward gesture. Carmena shook her head and pointed to Lennon.
"Let him lead the way up—unarmed," she suggested.
The advantage of the plan was instantly grasped by the crafty Apache. At his command, two of his men cut loose Lennon's bonds and jerked him to his feet.
"Wait, Carmena! Wait!" begged Lennon. "Think of Elsie!"
But the girl had already signalled to those above. The rope ladder came slipping down the cliff face. Lennon fell silent. Protests were now useless. The lowering of the ladder laid the cliff stronghold open to the merciless Apaches.
He turned away from the girl, full of loathing. Slade might possibly have refrained at the last moment from wronging Elsie. But Cochise——
There was no need of the Apache's prodding knife point to start him up the ladder. Though he did not relish having to act as a living shield for the attackers, he was more than willing to go first. Unluckily the tightness of his bonds had so bruised the ligaments of his wrists and ankles and left his limbs so numb that he had to climb with painful slowness.
Cochise, following at his heels, cursed and jabbed his knife into Lennon's leg. The cruel goading stung the benumbed muscles to quicker action. Lennon sprinted up the ladder, clear of his torturer. A glance down the rungs showed him three Apaches below Cochise, and Carmena at the foot, waiting with the remainder of the band. The ladder would not safely bear more than five climbers at a time.
Spurred even more by the plan that he had in mind than by the threat of the knife, Lennon sought to increase his lead over Cochise. But the Indian's wrists were not strained, and his flexible moccasins gave a better hold on the ladder rungs than Lennon's stiff boot soles. With the knife between his teeth, the young Apache swung up in swift pursuit.
Instead of gaining, Lennon lost his lead. Another downward glance, as he grasped the last rung below the sill of the cliff house doorway, showed him that Cochise was again at his heels. He must change the tactics of his plan. He uttered a startled cry and pretended to slip down a rung.
Cochise let go the ladder with one hand to jab his knife at Lennon's leg. Lennon jerked up the leg and kicked down with all his strength. The heel of his boot struck squarely in the upturned face of the Apache. The downward and outward force of the blow jerked loose Cochise's one-handed grip on the ladder. But even as he toppled backward, he crooked a leg with catlike quickness over one of the rungs.
Lennon saw only that his enemy was falling. His hand had already groped over the edge of the sill. Without another downward glance, he flung himself up and into the doorway. The wild scramble and plunge all but drove him headlong over the sack of corn and against the menacing muzzle of Pete's rifle.
That double traitor stood crouched at the inner side of the thick-walled entrance, torn between fear of Cochise and terror of Slade. Lennon had counted upon this dread and uncertainty of the young Navaho. He flung out his hands to him in urgent gestures.
"Quick—quick!" he cried. "Cut loose the ladder! Cochise will kill you! He's coming! Cut the ladder!"
The Indian shrank back to peer at the inner openings of the cliff house.
"Carmena—him no lie," he muttered. "Cochise kill 'um Slade."
"But you first!" urged Lennon. "He will——"
The band of an Apache headress shot up above the edge of the door sill. Lennon sprang at Pete to clutch his knife. The Navaho flung up his rifle. A chance blow of the barrel sent Lennon staggering half across the anteroom.
The Apache writhed up into the doorway and bounded over the sack of corn, his knife poised to strike. Pete whirled and fired from the hip. An instant later he was locked in the clutch of the yelling, slashing Apache. As they crashed down together in a furious death grapple, a second Apache came scrambling in over the cliff edge. Side by side with him appeared Cochise, the print of Lennon's boot-heel already blackening on his ferociously scowling forehead.
Pete's rifle had fallen outward into the doorway, alongside the sack of corn. Lennon was unarmed. There was no time for him to wrest the knife from the wounded Apache and slash the ladder ropes. Cochise clutched Pete's rifle and started to swing it around. His companion thrust out a revolver.
The shot missed Lennon by inches as he leaped to the side opposite the living room. He dashed out the first opening and started to run through the front row of rooms, shouting at the top of his voice.
"Slade! Slade!" he yelled. "Cochise—Apaches! Defend yourself!"
From the inner rooms on his right came back an angry bellow. "What the devil?"
Lennon twisted aside through a black doorway. Farther in he saw a glimmer of light. Sharp turns through two more doorways brought him into a kiva, or sacred chamber of the cliff dwellers, that was lighted by a pair of candles. Slade stood beside the broken-edged entrance hole with drawn revolver. The wounded Navaho was peering down from a hole in the ceiling.
"Elsie!" panted Lennon. "Hide her! Pete betrayed you! All the Apaches—coming up the ladder!"
Slade sprang sideways along the figure-decorated wall of the kiva. He leaped to grasp the edge of the ceiling hole. The Navaho helped him draw up into the dark room above. As his feet swung clear Lennon leaped in turn to grasp the edge of the hole.
"Give me a hand up," he called. "I'll help you defend Elsie."
"Sure. You'll serve for wolf bait," jeered Slade.
His big hand thrust down and tapped the butt of the heavy revolver on the top of Lennon's head.
The treacherous blow was just hard enough to stun Lennon. His unconsciousness probably lasted only a few seconds. He roused to the sound of heavy firing and the pungent odour of powder. He opened his eyes.
One of the candles had been extinguished. The other showed one wounded and two dead Apaches lying upon the floor of the kiva. At the entrance other attackers were stealthily thrusting in to fire at the hole in the ceiling. The flash of answering shots spewed out of the black space above the hole.
Lennon had enough presence of mind to lie still. Dislodged by the fusillade of bullets, the dry materials of the ancient ceiling showered upon him. In the room above he heard the shriek of a mortally struck man. Another fusillade followed. Then a revolver came whirling down out of the darkness.
The Apaches yelled and burst into the kiva. They rushed toward the hole, firing upward as fast as they could pump their magazines. Unnoticed in the excitement, Lennon rolled clear of their trampling feet and sought to grasp Slade's fallen revolver. A chance kick sent it out of his reach.
Wild with blood-thirst, the last Apaches were trying to climb up the backs of those who had first leaped to seize the edge of the ceiling hole. Under the strain of their jerking weight one of the ancient beams gave way.
Down crashed a part of the floor above. With it came Slade, bellowing with rage, bleeding from several wounds, and his right arm shattered. His massive body fell upon and knocked down two of the crowding Apaches. He staggered up and struck out with his maul-like fist.
The voice of Cochise sounded above the din of the fight. The Apaches flung themselves at Slade like wolves attacking a maimed bull. But they used neither rifles nor knives. The trader was borne down by the weight of numbers and his left arm lashed fast to his backward twisted feet.
Cochise had caught up the flickering candle. He sprang upon the back of another man and peered into the room above. When at last he jumped down his face was distorted with anger. He shook his knife in Slade's face.
"Where you hide my woman?" he demanded.
"She hid herself," growled Slade. "I was still looking for her."
"Big mouth—big lie!" scoffed Cochise, and he thrust the flame of the candle against Slade's nose.
The trader puffed out the light. Lennon had been edging around toward the door. He took instant advantage of the darkness to slip out and run toward the living room. There he might hope to find a rifle and die fighting.
In the anteroom he came face to face with a pair of Apaches, who stood on guard over Carmena. At their gestures, emphasized by half-raised rifles, he backed into the corner beside the girl. She flashed him a look of profound relief and put a tremulous hand on his arm.
"Jack—I thought they'd killed you. Slade?"
"Prisoner, like ourselves. But they've still to find Elsie—no thanks to you!"
He drew away as if her touch were a pollution. She flushed, hesitated, and opened her lips to speak. With a burst of yells, the Apaches rushed in, dragging Slade in their midst.
At sight of Lennon, Cochise wrinkled his bruised forehead in a scowl of evil satisfaction. But when he swaggered forward he looked only at Carmena.
"Slade swear you hide my woman," he said.
"How could I?" replied Carmena. "He had me tied up and lowered to you. He was up here with her all that time."
The face of the young Apache became impassive. He turned about and spoke softly to Slade. The trader, half dead from his wounds, raised his big head to mumble a denial.
At a word from Cochise, one of his men ran to fetch Elsie's brazier from the living room. In the bottom of the brazier was still a bed of glowing coals. The Apaches cut free one of Slade's feet and started to thrust it in upon the fire.
Carmena flung up her hands before her eyes.
"No!—no, Cochise!" she cried. "Kill him—he deserves to be killed! But not the torture—I can't bear it! I'll try to find Elsie for you. I think I know where she's hidden."
Lennon stared, more than ever filled with horror of her treachery.
"You—you!" he grasped. "That child—give her, to save that scoundrel?"
"And ourselves," added Carmena, her lips curved in a cajoling smile at Cochise. "When I've found her—and the tizwin—we'll be friends. Won't we, Cochise?"
"Sure. Dam' good friends," smoothly agreed the Apache. "You find my woman quick, I let you go. Sabe?"
"And the tizwin—the barrels of tizwin," added Carmena. "Come on, all of us together—— You, too, Jack."
She signed to the Apaches and called out a few words in their own thick guttural tongue.
Lennon did not hang back. Great as was his abhorrence of the girl, he started forward beside her. Probably owing to his ready advance, he was not again bound, though Cochise ordered a pair of his followers to guard the white man. The other Apaches pressed close after the leaders, drawn by their fierce craving for tizwin.
Regardless of Lennon's look of loathing, Carmena lighted a candle and led the way direct to the mummy room. From a ceiling beam of the room had been hung a crudely stuffed horned owl with wide-spread wings. At sight of the big gray-white bird and of the mummies even Cochise advanced less than a step inside the entrance.
Carmena went in with the candle and methodically peered among and behind all the heaps of rubbish. When she came back to the entrance her dark brows were drawn together in a frown, as if she were puzzled and trying to think of another hiding place. She looked at Lennon with a level glance.
"Hereafter you will recall that the quick and the dead are associated," she murmured.
She faced about to the superstitious Apaches.
"You see, Cochise. Your woman doesn't like these old dried spirits any more than you do. Come on."
Cochise and his men drew back before her advancing candle. They had no fancy to be left in the darkness with the bird of night and the "dried spirits" of the ancient cliff dwellers. They were not so backward, however, in the other inner rooms to which Carmena led them. Where there was a ceiling hole, one or more readily mounted with the candle to search the space above.
But nowhere was trace found of Elsie, though the candle had burned to a stub when the searchers reached the last inner room. They came from it into a front room, one exit of which was closed with a padlocked door of heavy planks. Lennon recognized the entrance to the still-room.
Carmena handed a key to Cochise and stood shielding the flickering flame of the candle.
"Maybe we'll find both together," she said. "It would have been just like Slade to lock your woman in with the tizwin."
She added a guttural murmur in Apache. The Indians pushed forward as their leader snapped open the padlock. The heavy door swung open. All surged into the still-room except one of Lennon's guards, and he craned his neck to gape at the still. Into Lennon's ear breathed a faint whisper: "Keep back."
A moment later Carmena was darting in after the Apaches. She took her shielding hand away from the candle to point at a pile of jugs behind the still. With the gesture she called out in Apache. Cochise and all the others rushed to dig into the pile of jugs. Carmena glided to the still and bent down. She thrust the candle into the opening of the firebox.
For the first time Lennon grasped what the girl was about. And with that he realized in a flash all the cool courage and cleverness and self-sacrifice of the plan that she had schemed out against the brute force of Slade and the cruel cunning of Cochise. Elsie was safe hidden in the mummy room, Slade was dying or dead, and now she had lured Cochise and his murderous followers into the death trap!
He saw the flare of the lighted tinder in the firebox. The fuse must already be burning. Yet the girl remained stooped before the still. She would be blown to pieces no less certainly than the Apaches.
Lennon glanced desperately at his guard, who stood beside him in the doorway. The almost naked Apache was a mass of sinewy muscle, and his beady eyes were fixed upon the prisoner in alert watchfulness. Yet he was not quick enough to dodge Lennon's uppercut. He sprawled backward and struck his shock head upon the stone floor.
Carmena had straightened and faced about. At sight of Lennon bounding toward her she thrust out her hands in a repellant gesture.
He clutched her outflung hands and dragged her toward the door. From behind the still came an answering yell. Cochise and another Apache rushed around at the couple. Carmena lunged forward, to thrust Lennon at the doorway. Unbalanced by the shove, he stumbled over the Apache whom he had knocked senseless.
Carmena fell, rolled to one side, and struggled to her knees as Cochise leaped to the doorway after Lennon. Behind them roared a deafening detonation.
Though Lennon was out in the anteroom, he was hurled down by the force of the explosion. He staggered to his feet and faced about. In the thick of the smoke that spumed from the still-room Cochise bounded from the floor and came at him with upraised knife. Lennon barely saved himself by the quickest of side-stepping.
Cochise shot past, whirled, and closed in with the fury of a wildcat. Lennon's parry of the knife stab was sheer luck, but not the blow that he drove to the solar plexus. Superb as was the physical condition of the young Apache, that solid jolt sent him reeling back, gasping for breath.
Lennon closed and sought to wrest away the knife. He twisted down on the Apache's wrist. The knife fell to the floor. He bent to grasp it. Cochise dropped upon him and seized his throat. The slender sinewy hands tightened with frightful force. A few seconds of that throttling pressure would have brought unconsciousness to Lennon. In vain he sought to tear loose the strangle hold.
He was on the verge of frantic flurry when his failing reason fixed upon the fact that there was a lump under his down-pressed back. By great effort he wrenched his body around. His groping hand grasped the fallen knife.
At the second stroke the terrible clutch on his throat relaxed. Cochise twisted convulsively and rolled over on his back.
Lennon wheezed, felt his throat, and jerked himself over, ready to drive the knife into the heart of his merciless enemy. Cochise lay inert, his mouth agape and his eyes rolled up so that only the whites could be seen. Lennon's deep-drawn sigh of satisfaction over that death-mask face caught in the midst and turned into a gasp. He flung himself about to the doorway of the still-room. Where the still had stood was now only a hole in the stone floor. He did not look too closely at the general wreckage.
His half-dazed roving gaze fell upon Carmena. She lay as inert as Cochise and the Apache guard. Yet she was not dead. A fragment of stone or metal, or the shock of the explosion, had injured her back.
He carried her out into the anteroom. She revived. But when she sought to rise, she sank back with an ominous limpness.
"Carmena!" he cried. "Carmena—what is it? You're hurt!"
She smiled up at him, her dark eyes radiant with infinite tenderness and devotion.
"It's all right, Jack—all right," she murmured. "I wanted to do it—for Blossom—and you, dear. Now you are safe. The way up the canon is clear. Take the right fork, then, each time, the left of the next forks. The trail is only a few miles west, over the mesas. You'll find Blossom in the mummy room. Hurry off with her before Slade's men come. Hurry—don't linger——"
"You——" broke in Lennon. "Can you think I would leave you here?"
"There's no other way. My back—I can't sit up, and my legs are numb. I can't move them."
"I'll carry you, and there's the hoist rope."
"No use. I couldn't ride."
"I'll carry you," repeated Lennon.
The girl laid a gently caressing hand on his arm.
"Don't you understand, dear? My back—it must be broken. We must think of Blossom. You must hurry off with her while there is time. Isn't it good that you love her?"
Lennon uttered a choking cry and caught the girl up in his arms. He clasped her to him in an agony of love and remorse.
"Carmena! To have thought so wrong of you—of you who were giving your life! I've been a fool—a blind fool. Forgive me! That child—— My God! I can't give you up—I'll not give you up!"
"Then—you do—love me, Jack," sighed the girl. Her arms crept up about his neck. "You do love me—I'm glad now you did not let me die—at once—in there."
"Not at all!" vowed Lennon. "Even though your back—— You'll not die."
"I can't live—like this, dear. And there's Blossom. You must get her away before Slade's men—— But first find me my little pistol. I gave it to Blossom—to use if there was no other way left. Leave it with me, and hurry off with her while there's time. Hurry!"
Lennon's clasp tightened.
"No. I'll never leave you—never while——"
From the inner rooms of the cliff house came a burst of piercing childish shrieks. Carmena twisted about in Lennon's suddenly loosened embrace. There was a sound like the snap of a dry twig. Carmena screamed and fell over sideways in a deathlike faint.
OUT OF THE PAST
As Lennon knelt beside the swooning girl the shrieks rang nearer. Elsie came flying through the rear opening, in wild fright. Her dress was torn and her yellow hair full of dust and wooden bits. Lennon sprang up, certain that the Apache who had been wounded in the kiva was pursuing her.
In her flurry she appeared to heed nothing until almost upon the body of Cochise. But one glance at the ghostly whites of the Apache's upturned eyes sent her shrinking backward, stricken to horrified silence. Her wild stare fixed first upon Carmena and then shifted to Lennon. With a shriek, she flung herself upon him, clutching him about the body in frantic terror.
"Oh! oh! Papa! Papa! Papa!" she screamed, in a childish treble. "Bad Indian! He's hurting mamma! He's choking mamma!"
Lennon pressed her face hard against his breast to stifle her shrieks.
"Be still," he shouted. "Stop that noise. You're safe. Be still. Hear me? You're safe."
Checked by the sternness of his voice the distracted girl hushed her hysterical cries. When he repeated that she was safe, she at last seemed to grasp the fact. Yet she continued to cling fast to him.
"Tell me quick," he demanded. "Is an Indian following you?"
"No-no-no!" she babbled. "It's mamma—he's choking her! He——"
The tremulous words broke off in a gasp of astonishment. The wild blue eyes stared up at Lennon in bewildered lack of recognition.
"Why—why, you're not my papa!" she cried.
"Of course not, Blossom. I'm Jack—Brother Jack. Don't you know me?"
The girl shrank back.
"You're not my brother. Let me go. I haven't any brother. I never saw you before."
"Oh, Blossom!" came a cry beside them.
Lennon's glance darted aslant.
Carmena had risen to a sitting position with her arms outstretched toward Elsie. Her face was white from pain, and she was swaying—but she was sitting upright. Realization of what that meant burst upon Lennon like a flood of golden sunshine.