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Bloom of Cactus
by Robert Ames Bennet
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He dropped on his knees to fling a supporting arm about the girl's shoulders.

"Dearest, it's not true—not true that you—— Your back! You're able to rise!"

Carmena lowered her gaze from her bewildered sister.

"What, I——" she murmured. "Why, so I am! There was a snap, and then, oh, such a pain! It must be the bone had only slipped. That twist snapped it back into place."

"But the pain, dear?"

"It's getting better. It's good pain. It proves I'm alive again—all alive. Raise me up, Jack. I want to see if I can stand."

He lifted her with utmost gentleness. Her teeth clenched upon her lip. But, once she was upright, the pain again eased. She was delighted to find that she could stand with no more than half support from him.

"Yes—all alive," she repeated and she turned to Elsie. "With a brace I'll be able to rise. Blossom, you can bind on——"

"I'm not Blossom. I'm—I'm Elsie Lane," faltered the younger girl. "And you're not my mamma, no more than he's my papa."

Lennon and Carmena stared at each other questioningly. The girl seemed rational, yet clearly she recognized neither of them. Carmena was first to catch an inkling of the truth.

"No, dear," she soothed. "Of course we're not your papa and mamma. Of course you're Elsie Lane. But we want to help you. We are your friends, dear. What has happened? Tell us."

The girl stared from them to her surroundings, more than ever bewildered. But the hideous gape of Cochise's mouth and his upturned glassy eyes drew from her a whimpering cry. She shrank around to hide behind Lennon and clutch his arm.

"Oh! That man—that bad Indian—he came after papa found old Sim's mine, and mamma fed him, and—and then he choked her, and I ran to get papa, and papa was lying down at the bottom, with an awful red hole in his head—and I ran back to mamma—and she was dead. The bad Indian was chasing our ponies. I was 'fraid he'd kill me, too, and I ran and ran and ran, right up past the middle tower of the giant's castle and down the other side, and I got awful thirsty. Then—then I went to sleep—and when I woke up the roof was falling on me and it was night, and when I got out here, you weren't my papa and mamma, but there was that bad Indian."

Lennon needed no verification of the tragedy that the girl evidently remembered as having occurred only a few hours past. Before his mental vision rose the gruesome images of the skeleton at the foot of the mine slide and the skeleton in the cabin.

"I've been blind," he murmured to Carmena. "Sim told me that nine years ago he gave maps of his mine and the Triple Butte region to a doctor named Lane."

Carmena was gazing yearningly at the unresponsive Elsie.

"All these years!" she sighed. "First her childhood all a blank to her, and now all the years with me lost! I'm a stranger to her—to my little Blossom! Oh, Jack!"

"Give her time. She will remember. Such cases are not unknown," comforted Lennon. He turned to Elsie.

"Listen, dear. I found your papa and mamma and buried them. Now I have killed the bad Indian. But you have been sick—out of your head—a long time. This lady—Carmena—has taken care of you and she loves you."

The child-minded girl peered up at her foster-sister.

"You—you love me? But I know it. You look at me like mamma does."

Carmena smiled radiantly. Lennon hastened to add an urgent appeal.

"She is hurt, Elsie, and more bad Indians are coming. Won't you help me get her safe away from here?"

The request diverted the girl's thoughts before she could yield again to panic. Instead of going frantic and becoming a drag upon Lennon's efforts, she helped support Carmena through to the hoist room.

Slade was lying as the Apaches had left him, beside the charcoal brazier, his left arm still lashed behind to his right foot. He had died from his wounds. As they passed by, Lennon shielded Elsie from the unpleasant sight. But Carmena looked full at the big twisted body of the man who had ruined and murdered her father.

"He deserved it all and more—far more," she murmured. "First to make Dad believe the brand-blotting was a part of his honest cattle business, and then——"

"What's that?" interrupted Lennon. "You mean he deceived your father? I did not understand it that way."

"Yes. He lied. Dad was an Easterner like yourself. Slade had him incriminated before he knew it was stock stealing. Then he forced tizwin making upon us. You know the consequences to poor Dad. And what if the big beast had found Blossom! Oh, I should have waited for Cochise to torture him. But I could not bear it."

"Because you are yourself, Carmena—as tender-hearted as you are strong and brave and wise."

"Silly, you mean—to lose a single moment now in talk. Put me down here. I can get to the hoist. Hurry with Elsie—get saddles, food, your rifle. Hurry! We must get out of the Hole before Slade's punchers come."

Lennon eased the girl to the floor and ran into the living room. Elsie darted after him. Nor did she stop to be directed. She went straight to her food cupboard, without paying the slightest heed to the outstretched body of the luckless Farley. Lennon threw a rug over the pitiful form and hastened to drag three saddles and as many canteens out to the hoist.

Carmena had crept back close to the body of Slade. She waved Lennon to hurry. He ran back for his rifle and the food. Elsie already had packed two pairs of saddlebags with flour, bacon, and dried meat, and was unlashing the broad stiff hair girth from another saddle.

"Here's just the thing to brace Mena's back," she said.

"Good enough. It will go round her two or three times and——"

Lennon stopped short to stare at the eager girl.

"Why Blossom, you call her Mena—and you went direct to the food cupboard. You've remembered all!"

The girl gazed up at him, wide-eyed.

"Oh, did I? Have I! I did it without thinking. It just seemed natural. But my name isn't Blossom—and it's—it's awful queer—I never saw this place before."

"You have," contradicted Lennon. "It has been a long, long dream, little Blossom. You are beginning to remember it now."

"O-oh—like a dream—— It does seem as if everything—and you—you're Brother Jack, who was going to marry me. But how silly—when I'm only ten years old! Of course it's just all a dream."

Lennon caught at the point——

"Yes, yes, that's a dream, only a dream about our marrying. You've been dreaming for years, and now you're much older than ten—much older. But that other is only a fancy—a mistake. It's Mena I'm to marry, and you're to be our dear little sister. Remember, I'm to be your brother—your Brother Jack."

"I'll remember," promised Elsie. "You're good, like her. You buried papa and mamma and you killed that bad Indian."

A cry from Carmena sent Lennon bounding out into the anteroom, with his rifle ready to fire. The girl had crouched low behind the massive body of Slade. She pointed to the far corner of the room and shrilled warningly:

"Look out, Jack! Cochise!—there in the window!"

Lennon dashed straight at the dark opening where he had seen the gray face of Farley on his first coming to the cliff house. He thrust in the muzzle of his rifle and then his head. Though shadowed, the inner room was light enough for him to see that it was empty. He went back to Carmena.

"No one there," he said. "Just your fancy, dear. You're nervous—overwrought. But no wonder. The sooner we're down and away from here, the better."

"Wait. First take this," replied Carmena. She held up a thick-padded leather belt.

"Slade's," she explained. "I guessed he might be carrying it. It's his money-belt, stuffed with big bills. He lied about the partnership bank-account. Take it, Jack—for Elsie and me. It's ours by rights. He cheated us of our heritage. We have to leave Dad's ranch."

The belt was already fast about Lennon's waist. Elsie appeared, dragging the saddlebags and the girth. Lennon brought the wide cinch to wrap around Carmena's waist. The double fold lashed fast with the straps made a broad stiff corsage support for her wrenched back.

In quick succession, Lennon then lowered, over the sacks of corn in the hoist opening, first Elsie, then the outfit, and lastly Carmena. She asked to see her father, but Lennon dissuaded her. He thought best that her last impression of Slade's victim should be the broken man's redeeming flare of vengeful love and fatherhood.

The moment the slackening hoist rope told him that Elsie had steadied her foster-sister down upon the cliff foot, Lennon ran to descend the rope ladder. Time was passing, and there was still much to be done. He must catch and saddle three good horses. Slade's punchers might not come for four or five hours. But the earlier the start of the fugitives, the better would be their chance of escape if the Navahos should seek to track them down.

Elsie had drawn Carmena away from the heap of saddles and bags to a seat on a ledge. As Lennon sprang toward them from the foot of the shaking ladder Carmena called out and pointed over his head. One rope of the ladder had sagged as if broken. A moment later the ladder came slithering down the cliff face.

"Cut—That face in the window—Cochise! He's not dead!" cried Carmena. "Oh, Jack, if you hadn't come down fast! He tried to make you fall!"

Lennon was already running out to aim his rifle at the doorway from which the ladder had fallen. There was no sign of the ladder-cutter. Out of the side of his eye Lennon saw the crane swing back into the other opening and the hoist rope jerk upward. He swung his rifle to that side.

The top sack of corn in the barricade slewed out over the brink. It toppled and came plunging downward. Above it a dark head came into sight, half out-thrust over the top of the other sacks.

Lennon fired up past the falling bag of grain. The head jerked upward, twisted, and lay still on the edge of the barricade, as the sack of corn thudded and burst on the cliff foot within two feet of the saddles. To make doubly certain, Lennon sent up another bullet, as well-aimed as the first.

His lips were set in a smile of stern satisfaction as he came to where Elsie was cowering in the arms of Carmena.

"You were right—as usual," he said. "The knife could only have knocked him out for a time. He must have played 'possum. But he was disabled. Crawled after us—couldn't get a gun till we left and too eager to wait—thought we'd be under the hoist. Yet why he should have exposed himself——"

"His wounds," divined Carmena. "The strain of heaving over the sack was too much for him. He collapsed. You're sure you didn't miss him, Jack?"

"No. Through the head—same as he shot Blossom's father."



CHAPTER XXIV

HIS DAUGHTER'S FATHER

Carmena stroked the dishevelled Elsie's yellow locks.

"There, there, sweetheart," she said soothingly. "The fighting is all over. The bad Indian really is dead this time. You've no more need to be frightened. Brother Jack and I will take care of you."

Elsie gazed up into the loving dark eyes of her comforter.

"Why, of course, Mena, when you've always——"

The blue eyes suddenly widened.

"But—but not always—papa and mamma—it seems only yesterday—— No, you—all these years—— But then I can't be only ten! My goodness, what a funny rumbly-wumble in my head—just like two dreams mixed up—only they're real—both of them!"

"Yes, both real—all real, Blossom."

"Except one thing," hastily put in Lennon. "It is Carmena whom I am going to marry, Elsie. Remember that."

The girl looked at him, blushing and dimpling with shy delight.

"Oh, it'll be ever so much nicer, 'cause then I can be just your dear little sister, and Mena loves you a thousand times more."

Carmena's cheeks flooded with scarlet, but she faced Lennon with a look of unflinching candour.

"Yes, Jack, I do. I tricked you into the Basin. For Dad's sake, I was ready to lead you to almost certain death from Cochise and his bunch. But after that Gila monster I loved you—I put you above all else except Blossom's safety and Dad's good name."

Lennon glowed back at her, proud that he had won the love of such a woman, yet humble over the consciousness of how he had misjudged her.

"You had no thought for yourself," he said. "You would have given your life—and more. You failed to save your father's life, but we shall save his name. Did Slade's Navahos share in the stock stealing?"

"Only Pete. Of the others, Slade's four bodyguards alone knew about the Hole. But, once in, any of the punchers can trail us."

"No," declared Lennon. "To be sure, there is one of the four left. But what if he does bring the punchers? All I need do is catch a pony, ride down the valley, and haul up the lift in the lower canon."

"Of course!" agreed Carmena. "What a loon I've been not to think of it myself! Of course, Cochise would have done it if we hadn't got the bunch up the cliff when we did. It will take the Navahos till noon to-morrow to ride all the way back and round to the head of Hell Canon."

"Good enough," said Lennon. "That solves all our difficulties. We can go out the canon to-night and have a long start for the railway. There we will report how Slade and your father have been killed in a fight with a band of Apache stock thieves."

"Oh, Jack! And Slade's Navahos will scatter when they hear he is dead, and they'll never talk. They're Indians. But the stock here in the Hole, what if the sheriff wants to investigate?"

Lennon pointed upward.

"If he should manage to get into the cliff house, there's nothing incriminating left. The dynamite obliterated the still. As for the stock, we will drive it out with us and deliver it up as part of the loot retaken by us from the thieves."

Carmena put Elsie aside and rose to lay her hands on Lennon's shoulders.

"Now I know for sure you love me," she said. "You love me enough to forget Dad as you knew him and to remember only that he was my father. You would shield his good name as you would shield your own. Yet I am the daughter of a rustler, of a moonshiner, of a drunken criminal."

"No," denied Lennon. "You are the daughter of an unfortunate gentleman, who paid bitterly for his mistakes—who gave his life in an attempt to save you and the child whom he had taken in and sheltered. Let God judge whether he was not far more victim than wrongdoer."

"But the daughter of a weak man——"

Lennon smiled into her troubled eyes.

"You glory of the desert—you cactus blossom! It was your very strength that repelled me, like the spines of the cactus. I never had known your like. I thought a woman must be weak and clinging."

He cast a smiling glance at the wide-eyed Elsie.

"But now, dear, I know that the bloom of the desert thorn may be even more fragrant and lovely than any garden flower."

THE END

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The Country Life Press—Garden City, N. Y.

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