Kendric threw on a little more fuel and, to make doubly sure, went outside again, standing in the open beyond the fringe of bushes.
"Never a flicker gets through," he announced when he returned. "A man would have to come close enough to hear the wood crackle or smell the smoke to ever guess we had a fire going. And even the smoke is taken care of." They tilted back their heads to see how it crept lazing up and up until it was dissipated among the lofty shadows. "If we can manage water and food," he went on, "I think we would be safe here a year. The lazy devils taking Zoraida's pay can't make it up this way on horseback, and they're not going to climb on foot up every steep bit of mountainside hereabouts, looking for us."
"A year?" gasped Betty.
"I hope not." He became conscious of a sudden sense of relief after all that the night had offered and his old joyous laughter shone in his eyes. "But there may be wisdom in sticking close for a few days. Until they decide we've gone clear."
It was the time, inevitable though it may be long delayed, of relaxing nerves and muscles. Betty sat down limply, her hands loose in her tap, her eyes drawn to their fire, looking tired and wistful. Kendric, looking at her, felt a hot rush of anger at Zoraida for being the cause of their present condition. Betty lifted her head and caught the expression molding his face. She was wrapped about with her red gown and Zoraida's cloak; her ankles were bare; then were scratches on them; her sandals looked already worn out; her hair was tumbled and snarled. She shook it loose and began combing it through with her fingers, then twisting it up into two loose brown braids.
"IL we do have to stay a while," said Betty, gathering her courage in both hands, looking up at him an managing a smile, "I'll show you how I can cozy the place up. Tomorrow, while you're doing the man's part and finding us something to eat, I'll show you what a housekeeper I can be. Why, I can make this just like home; you'll see."
While he was doing the man's part! In her mind, then, it was all simplified and reduced to that. His, naturally, was to be the task of furnishing food, for nothing was clearer than that they must eat and that filling the larder was Jim's affair and not Betty's. Where he was to get food and how and what kind of food it might be was to be left to him. There was Betty for you, quite content to leave such matters where they properly belonged—in a man's hands. But he might rest assured that whatever he brought in, be it a handful of acorns or pine nuts or the carcass of a lean ground squirrel, would be, in Betty's eye, splendid!
"Somehow," he burst out, "in spite of Zoraida and all the bandits in Mexico, we'll carry on!"
"Of course," said Betty.
He saw that she was leaning back against the rocks, that her whole body drooped, that she looked wearied out.
"I'm going out for some boughs, the softest I can find handy," he said. "We'll have to sleep on them. And while I'm doing that I've got to figure out a way to bring some water up here. We don't know what's ahead and we'd be in hard luck bottled up here all day tomorrow with nothing to drink. Lord, I'd give a lot for a tin bucket!"
He made a little heap of dead wood close to her hand so that she could keep her fire going, and put down on the other side of her his rifle and the long obsidian knife, planning to use his pocket knife for the work at hand.
"You won't go far?" asked Betty.
"Only a few steps," he assured her. "I'll hear if you call. And you have the rifle handy."
He was going out when Betty's voice arrested him.
"It's the housekeeper's place to have the buckets ready," was what she said.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"I'll show you when you come back. You'll hurry, won't you?"
"Sure thing," he answered. And went about his task.
Now Jim Kendric knew as well as any man that there is no bed to compare with the bed a man may make for himself in the forestlands. But here was no forest, no thicket of young firs aromatic and springy, nothing but the harsher vegetation of a hard land where agaves, the maguey of Mexico, and their kin thrive, where the cactus is the characteristic growth. He'd be in luck to find some small pines or even the dry-looking sparse cedars of the locality. These with handfuls of dry leaves and grass, perhaps some tenderer shoots from the hillside sage, with Zoraida's cloak spread over them, might make for Betty a couch on which she could manage to sleep. It was too dark for picking and choosing and his range was limited to what scant growth found root on these uplands close by.
When he returned with the first armful of branches he informed Betty cheerily that outside her fire was hidden as though a sturdy oak panel shut their door for them. Betty was bending busily over her cloak and still thus occupied when he brought in the second and third trailing armful of boughs. He stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at her curiously. And as at last Betty glanced up brightly there was an air of triumph about her.
"The bucket is ready for the water," she said.
He came closer and she held out something toward him, and again he adjusted his views to fit the companion whom he was growing to know. She had spoiled a very beautiful and expensive cloak, but of it she had improvised something intended to hold water. Not for very long, perhaps; but long enough for the journey here from the creek, if a man did not loiter on the way. With the ancient sacrificial knife she had hacked at a stringy, fibrous bit of vegetation growing near the mouth of their den; she had managed a tough loop some eight or ten inches in diameter. Then she had ripped a square of silk from the cloak which she had shaped cunningly like a deep pocket, binding it securely into the fiber rim by thrusting holes through the silk and running bits of the green fiber through like pack thread. The final result looked something less like a bucket than some strange oriole's hanging nest.
"It will hold water," vowed Betty, ready for argument. "I've worn bathing caps of a lot poorer grade of silk and never a drop got through. Besides I put a thickness of silk, then a layer of these broad leaves, then another piece of silk, to make sure."
"Fine," he said. "Yes, it will hold water for a while. But it's a long time from daylight until dark, and I'm afraid——"
"As if I hadn't thought of that!" said Betty. "I knew that if I looked around I'd find something. I thought of your boots, of course; and I thought of your rifle barrel. But you'll need the boots and may need the gun. Come and I'll show you our reservoir."
She put a handful of leaves and twigs on the fire for the sake of more light, and led the way toward the narrowing fissure further back in their retreat. Here she stopped before a great rudely egg-shaped boulder five or six feet through that lay in a shallow depression in the ground.
"Our water bottle," said Betty.
He supposed that she referred to the depression in the rock floor, since the boulder did not fit in it so exactly as to preclude the possibility of the big rude basin holding water. The word "evaporation" was on his lips when Betty explained. She had hoped to find somewhere a cavity in a rock that would hold their water supply; she had noted this boulder and a flattish place at its top. There her questing fingers had discovered what Kendric's, at her direction, were exploring now. There was a fairly round hole, a couple of inches across. The edges were surprisingly smooth; Kendric could not guess how deep the hole was.
"Poke a stick into it," Betty commanded.
Obeying, he learned that the hole extended eighteen inches or more. Here was a fairly regular cylinder let into a block of hard rock that would contain something like two quarts of water—certainly enough to keep the life in two people for twenty-four hours.
"We'll make a plug to fit into the mouth of it," he said, catching her idea and immediately was as enthusiastic over it as Betty. "And while we're out getting the water we'll find something for straws. There are wild grasses, oats or something that looks like oats, in the canon."
The night was well spent; dawn would come early. And with the dawn, they had no doubt, the mountain trails would fill with Zoraida's men, questing like hounds. Hence Betty and Jim lost no more time in making their trip down the steep slope to the trickle of water. They drank again, lying side by side at a pool. Then Jim filled Betty's "bucket" and they returned to their place of refuge. Kendric arranged the boughs for Betty and made her lie down. By the time he had carved and fitted a plug into their "water bottle" Betty was asleep.
HOW ONE WHO HIDES AND WATCHES MAY BE WATCHED BY ONE HIDDEN
But Kendric himself did not sleep. He sat by their dead fire and watched the gradual thinning of the darkness about him as the vague light filtered in from the awakening outside world. He looked at Betty sleeping, only to look away with a frown darkening his eyes. She would sleep heavily and long; she would awake refreshed and—hungry. He was hungry already.
"It's open and shut," he told himself. "It's up to me to forage."
And it was as clear that there was always a risk of being seen as he left their hiding place. That risk would increase as the day brightened. Hence, since he must go, it were best not to tarry. He found in his pocket a stub of pencil and an old envelope. On it he wrote a brief message, placing it on the ground near her outflung hand, laying Bruce's pistol upon it.
"I'm off to fill the larder. Stick close until I come back. If I'm long gone it will be because I can't help it. But be sure I'll be back all right and bring something to eat. Jim."
He left her, not without uneasiness, but eager to hurry away so that, if all went well, his return might be hastened. He took the rifle and slipped cautiously through the bushes, stopping to make what assurance he could that he was not being seen, crawling for the most part across the open places, keeping as much as possible where boulders or trees hid him. He had already made his tentative plans; he made his way down into the bed of the ravine and thence upstream. Swiftly the light increased over the still solitudes. The sun was up on the highlands, the canons only were still dusky.
He found a place where he could stand hidden and see the cliff-broken slope where Betty was. Here he stood motionless for a long time, watching. For he knew that if by chance someone had seen him and had not followed it was because that someone had elected rather to seek the girl. At last, when the stillness remained unbroken and he saw no stirring thing, he expressed his relief in a deep sigh and went on.
His plan was to work his way up the ravine until at last he topped the ridge and went down on the further side. From his starting place he had roughly picked out his way, shaping his trail to conform to those bits of timber which would aid in his concealment. Once over the ridge he would press on until several miles lay between him and Betty. Then, if he saw game of any sort or a straying calf or sheep, he would have to take the chance that a rifle shot entailed. If his shot brought Zoraida's men down on him, he would have to fight for it or run for it as circumstances directed.
He was an hour in cresting the first ridge. Before him lay a wild country, broken and barren in places where there were wildernesses of rock and thorny bush; in other places scantily timbered and grown up in tough grasses. A more unlikely game country he thought that he had never seen. But the land hereabouts was not utterly devoid of water and always, as he went on, he sought those canons where from a distance he judged that he might come to a spring. Even so he was parched with thirst before he found the first mudhole. And before he drew near enough to drink he sat many minutes screened by some dusty willows, his eye keen either for watering game or for Zoraida's hirelings who would be watching the waterholes.
But, when at last he came on, he found nothing but a jumble of tracks. Ponies had watered here and had trampled the spring into its present resemblance to a mudhole. He found a place to drink, and drank thirstily, finding no fault with the alkali water or the sediment in it. He washed his hands and face in it, wet his hair and went on.
There came three more spurs of mountain to cross, all unlikely for game, each one hotter and dryer than the others. Twice he had seen a coyote; he had seen two or three gaunt, hungry-looking jackrabbits. They had been too far away to draw a shot, gray glimmers through patches of sage. He had seen never a hoof of wandering cattle. And he realized that during the heat of the day there was small hope of his sighting any browsing animal. He would probably have to wait until the cool of evening and then, if he made his kill, return to Betty in the dark. And, though he keenly kept his bearings, he knew that if he mistook a landmark somewhere and got into a wrong canon, he'd have his work cut out for him finding her at night. Well, that was only a piece of the whole pattern and he kept his mind on the immediate present.
He estimated that he was ten miles from camp. Ahead of him stretched still another ridge, a little higher than the others but a shade less barren; there were scattered pines and oaks and open grassy places. From the top of this ridge, half an hour later, he glimpsed a haze of smoke rising from the little valley just beyond. And when he came to a place whence he could have an unobstructed view he saw a scattering flock of sheep, a tiny stream of water and a rickety board shack. It was from this shelter that the smoke rose. It was high noon and down there the midday meal was cooking.
Food being cooked right under his nose! All day he had been hungry; now he was ravenous. So strong was the impulse upon him that he started down the slope in a direct line to the house, bent upon flinging open a door and demanding to be fed. But he caught himself up and sat down in the shade, hidden behind some bushes, and pondered the situation. The sheep straggled everywhere; he might wait for one of them to wander off into the bushes and then slip around upon it and make it his own with a clubbed rifle. Or he might go to the house, taking his chance.
While he was waiting and watching he saw a man come out of the cabin. The fellow lounged down to the spring for a pan of water and lounged back to the house; the eternal Mexican cigaret in his lips sent its floating ribbon of smoke behind him. Ten minutes later the same man came out, this time to lie down on the ground under a tree.
"Just one hombre," decided Kendric. "A lazy devil of a sheepherder. There's more than a fair chance that his siesta will last all afternoon."
At any rate, here appeared his even break. He sprang up, went with swinging strides down the slope, taking the shortest cut, and reached the cabin by the back door. The Mexican still lay under his tree. Kendric looked in at the door. No one there, just a bare, empty untidy room. It was bedroom, kitchen and dining-room. In the latter capacity it appealed strongly to Kendric. He went in, set his rifle down, and rummaged.
There was, of course, a big pot of red beans. And there were tortillas, a great heap of them. Kendric took half a dozen of them, moistened them in the half pan of water and poured a high heap of beans on them. Then he rolled the tortillas up, making a monster cylindrical bean sandwich. A soiled newspaper, with a look almost of antiquity to it, he found on a shelf and wrapped about his sandwich which he thrust into the bosom of his shirt. All of this had required about two minutes and in the meantime his eyes had been busy, still rummaging.
There was a box nailed to the wall with a cloth over it. In it he found what he expected; a lot of jerked beef, dry and hard. He filled his pockets, his mouth already full. On a table was a flour sack; he put into it the bulk of the remaining beef, some coffee and sugar, a couple of cans of milk. Then he looked out at the Mexican. The man still lay in the gorged torpor of the afternoon siesta.
"What will he think?" chuckled Kendric, "when he finds his larder raided and this on the table?"
This was a twenty dollar gold piece, enough to pay many times over the amount of the commandeered victuals. Kendric took up sack and rifle, had another mouthful of frijoles and beef, and went out the way he had come. And, all the way up the slope, he chuckled to himself.
"Enough to last Betty and me a week," he estimated. "And a place to get more if need be. That hombre will pray the rest of his life to be raided again.—And never a shot fired!"
He ate as he went, enough to keep life and strength in him but not all that his hunger craved. For he thought of Betty hungering and waiting in that hideous loneliness of uncertainty, and had no heart for a solitary meal. But in fancy, over and over, he feasted with her, and beans and jerked beef and coffee boiled in a milk-can made a banquet.
He hastened all that he could to return to her, though he knew that speeding along the trail could hardly bring him to her a second earlier. For he would, in the end, be constrained to wait for the coming of night before he climbed again to their camp. He realized soberly that Betty must not again fall into Zoraida's hands; that the result, inevitably, would be her death. Were Zoraida mad or sane, she was filled with a frenzy of blood lust. There was danger enough without his increasing it for the sake of coming an hour sooner with food. In one day Betty would not starve and fast she must.
But there was satisfaction in drawing steadily closer to her. He traveled as cautiously as he had come, he stopped in many places of concealment whence he could overlook miles of country, he followed not the shortest paths but the safest. And the sun was still high when he came to the last ridge and looked down the canon and across and saw the cliffs of home. In his thoughts it was home.
All day long, save for the herder, he had seen not a single soul. Now he saw someone, a man at a distance and upon the side of the canon opposite the spot he and Betty had chosen. Kendric had been for ten minutes lying under a tree on the ridge, his body concealed by an outcropping ledge of rock over which he had been looking. The man, like himself, was playing a waiting game. But just now he had stirred, moving swiftly from behind a tree to a nearby boulder. Thus he had caught Kendric's eye. And thus Kendric was reassured, confident after the first quick sinking of his heart, that the other had not seen him.
The man, too far away for Kendric to distinguish detail of either costume or features, was hardly more than a slinking shadow. But almost with the first glimpse there came the quick suspicion that it was Ruiz Rios. He saw something white in the man's hand; a handkerchief since the gesture was one of wiping a wet forehead. And on that slender evidence Kendric's belief established itself. Zoraida's vacqueros would not carry white handkerchiefs; if they carried any sort at all they would probably be red or yellow or blue; or, if white originally, they would not be kept so snowy as to flash like that one. And the gesture itself, once the thought had come to him, was vaguely suggestive of that slow grace in every movement that was Rios's. The man might be anyone, conceivably even Barlow or Brace; but in his heart Kendric knew it was Rios.
Lower than ever Kendric crouched in the shelter of the rock; steady and unwinking and watchful did his eyes cling to the distant figure. He made out after a long period of motionlessness another gesture; the man's hands were up to his face; he was shading his eyes or studying the mountainside with field glasses.
The latter probably.
The afternoon dragged on and for a long time neither man moved. At last Rios, if Rios it was, withdrew a little, slipped behind a tree, passed to another and disappeared. Kendric did not see him again though he kept alert every instant. At last came the time when the sun slipped down behind the ridge and the dusk thickened and the stars came out. Kendric rose, stiff and weary, and began his slow, tedious way down into the canon. His long enforced stillness during which he had not dared doze a second, had served to bring a full realization of bodily fatigue and need of sleep. No rest last night; today many hard miles and little nourishment; now every nerve yearned for a safe return to camp for a sight of Betty, for the opportunity to throw himself down on a bed of boughs and rest.
Though it was dark when he started to climb the steep toward camp he relaxed nothing of his guarded precautions. Urged by impatience as he was, eager to know if all was well with Betty, his uneasiness for her growing with every step toward her, he crawled slowly and silently through bushes and among boulders, he stopped frequently and listened, he forced himself to a round about way rather than take the direct. All this in spite of his keen realization that for Betty the time must be dragging even as it dragged for him. Betty hungry, frightened and lonely was, above all, uncertain.
But at last he came to the opening in the rocks. He squeezed through, his heart suddenly heavy within him as the stillness of the place smote him like a positive assurance that Betty was gone. He went on, his teeth set hard. If Betty were gone, by high heaven, there would be a rendering of accounts! And then, even before the first glimmer of her little fire reached him, he heard her glad cry. She came running to meet him, her two hands out, groping for his. And he dropped rifle and provision bag and in the half dark his hands found hers and gripped hard in mighty rejoicing.
"Thank God!" said Betty.
And Jim Kendric's words were like a deep, fervent echo: "Thank God."
IN WHICH A ROCK MOVES, A DISCOVERY IS MADE AND MORE THAN ONE AVENUE IS OPENED
In the light of Betty's fire Jim hastily poured forth the contents of his bag and never did a child's eyes at Christmas time shine like Betty's. She had hungered until she was weak and trembling and now such articles as Jim displayed were amply sufficient to elicit from her that little cry of delight. Tortillas and beans, meat and coffee and sugar and milk—it was a banquet fit for a king and a queen!
"The only thing," cautioned Kendric, "is to go slow. It's a course dinner, Miss Betty. And first comes a bit of milk."
He ripped open a can with his pocket knife, poured out half of the thick contents into the silk-water bag and diluted the remainder with water. Thereafter he watched Betty while she forced herself, at his bidding, to eat and drink sparingly. And he noted that during his absence she had been busy working on her wardrobe. Using both the red garment and the cloak, employing in her task the obsidian knife and strips of green fiber, she had made for herself a garment which it would have been hard to classify and yet which was astonishingly becoming. As much as anything Kendric had ever seen it resembled a stylish and therefore outlandish riding habit. She wore Zoraida's shoes and stockings.
"I washed them with sand and water first," said Betty around a corner of her sandwich. "And I let them air all day."
"No visitors?" said Kendric. "No sign of anyone on our trail?"
Betty assured him that she had been unmolested, that the terrible stillness of the mountain had been unbroken. And she sought to tell him how long the day had been.
"I know," he said. "It was long enough for me, and I was out in the open and stirring. It must have been a slice of torment for you here alone all day, not even knowing if I'd ever get back or have any food when I came."
"I knew you'd come," said Betty. "But it was lonesome and shivery."
He told her of his day and finally of the man he had seen across the canon. Further, of his suspicion that it was Ruiz Rios. Betty shuddered.
"He is a terrible creature," she said. "I'd rather it was anyone else. Do you think he has an idea we're here?"
He stretched out by the fire, helped himself to a bit of the dried beef and told her his thoughts.
"I know just about how Rios would reason things out. And, oddly enough, it strikes me that though he began with a false premise he has come pretty close to reaching the right conclusion. You see, he knows that I came down here with Barlow looking for treasure. He knew Captain Escobar was ahead of him on the same trail and when he could get nothing further out of Escobar he killed him. But he did know in a general way where we expected to find the stuff. So, when you and I skip out and don't head straight back to the gulf, he's pretty sure I'm still making a stab at getting the treasure. And it has happened that you and I, blundering along in the dark, have hit on this spot which is not far from the place where the treasure is supposed to be. So Rios hides in the brush with a pair of glasses and keeps his eye peeled for us. I think that's the whole explanation of his being out yonder. And I think that's all he knows."
"It's enough." Betty shook her head dubiously.
"Of course," he admitted, "this is just a guess on my part. He may know more than I think.—During the day," he added, "and just now while I lay out yonder waiting for dark, I've had a lot of time to think things out. First, it strikes me as best to hide out here one more day and then, tomorrow night, to make a break for the outside. Personally, I don't know that I'd be fit for much tonight; it's a good stiff hike to where we left the Half Moon and I won't be able to keep awake much longer. Then by tomorrow night, even if Zoraida is as keen as ever to get us back, I doubt if her men's enthusiasm for vigilance will have lasted at the first heat. There'll be a better chance for us to slip through."
Here, again, the responsibility in Betty's way of thinking was his and she accepted his plan without challenge.
"Another thing I've been thinking of," he went on, "is that queer, smooth hole in that boulder; where we've our water stored. What have you made of it?"
"A reservoir," she answered lightly, her spirits risen swiftly with his coming and a taste of food. "What else?"
"Rios is hard set in his belief that there's ancient treasure nearby. So is Barlow. So, evidently, was Escobar. If so, what more likely place than where we are? That hole didn't make itself after that regular fashion. I don't see just what it has to do with the case, I'll admit. But somebody made it a long time ago and didn't do it just for the fun of the job. I've a notion that it has its bearing on the thing. Somehow."
"It isn't big enough to hold much treasure," said Betty. "Maybe they didn't finish it?"
But from this they went to other matters. Kendric merely decided that while they spent a long tomorrow of inaction he would look into the matter. There was no great temptation to tarry for treasure and the incentive to be on the way, traveling light, was sufficiently emphasized. But there was a quiet day to be put in tomorrow, if all went right, and he was not the man to forget what had brought him southward.
"We'll both go to sleep," he said presently, "and not do any worrying about what the other fellow may be doing. With our fire out and a lot of dead limbs scattered about the entrance to crack under a man's foot, they'll not surprise us tonight, even if they should know where we are. Tomorrow we'll keep a watch over the ravine. And tomorrow night I hope we'll be on the trail toward the gulf. Now do you want to slip out with me for a goodnight drink of water? Or would you rather wait here for me?"
Betty was on her feet in a flash.
"I've done enough waiting today to last me the rest of my life!" she cried emphatically. "I'll go with you."
So again, and as cautious as they had been last night, they made their way down the steep slope and drank in the starlight. They tarried a little by the trickle of water, heeding the silence, breathing deep of the soft night, lifting their eyes to the stars. The world seemed young and sweet about them, clean and tender, a place of infinite peace and kindness rather than of a pursuing hate. They stood close together; their shoulders brushed companionably. Together they hearkened to a tiny voice thrilling through the emptiness, the monotonous vibrating cadences of some happy insect. The heat of the day had passed with the day, the perfect hour had come. It was one of those moments which Jim Kendric found to his liking. Many such still hours had he known under many skies and out of the night had always come something vague and mighty to speak to something no less mighty which lay within his soul. But always before, when he drank the fill of a time like this, he had been alone. He had thought that a man must be alone to know the ineffable content of the solitudes. Tonight he was not alone. And yet more perfect than those other hours in other lands was this hour slipping by now as the tiny voice out yonder slipped through the silence without shattering it. Certain words of his own little song crept into his mind.
"Where it's only you And the mountainside."
That "you" had always been just Jim Kendric. After this, if ever again he sang it, the "you" would be Betty.
"Shall we go back?" he asked quietly.
He saw Betty start. Her eyes came back from the stars and sought his. He could see them only dimly in the shadow of her hair, but he knew they were shining with the gush of her own night-thoughts. They scooped up their water then and went back up the mountain. Their fire was almost down and they did not replenish it. They went to their beds of boughs and lay down in silence. Presently Jim said "Good night." And Betty, the hush of the outside in her voice as she answered, said softly "Good night."
They were astir before dawn. Fresh water must be brought before daylight brightened in the canons. This time Jim went alone to the creek and when he got back Betty had their fire blazing. Betty made the breakfast, insisting on having her free unhampered way with it.
"There are some things I can do," said Betty, "and a great many I can't. It happens that I know what things are beyond me and those that are within the scope of my powers. One thing that I can do is cook. And I have camped before now, if you please."
So, when Jim had brought her firewood and had placed the various articles of their larder handy for her and had offered his services with jack-knife to open a can or hack through a bit of beef, he stood back and fully enjoyed the sight of Betty making breakfast. He enjoyed the prettiness of her in her odd costume of blouse, scarlet sash and knickerbockers, silk stockings and high heeled slippers; the atmosphere of intimacy which hovered over them, distilled in a measure from the magic of a camp fire, certainly aided and abetted by the homey arrangement of Betty's brown hair; the aroma of coffee beginning to bubble in a milk tin; the fragrance of an inviting stew in the other tin wherein were mingled frijoles and "jerky." Ruiz Rios might lurk around the next spur of the mountain; Zoraida might be inciting her hirelings to fresh endeavor; much danger might be watching by the trail which in time they would have to follow—but here and now, for the few minutes at least, there was more of quiet enjoyment in their retreat than of discomfort or of fear of the future.
"Let's go camping some time," said Jim abruptly. "Just you and me. We'll take a pack horse; we'll load him to the guards with the proper sort of rations; we'll strike out into the heart of the California sierra—where there are fine forests and little lakes and lonely trails and peace over all of it."
Betty looked at him curiously, then away swiftly.
"Breakfast is ready," she announced.
He sipped at his coffee absently; his eyes, looking past Betty, saw into a hidden, cliff-rimmed valley in those other, fresher mountains further north, glimpsed vistas down narrow trails between tall pines and cedars and firs, fancied a lodge made of boughs on the shore of a little blue lake. He'd like to show Betty this camping spot; he'd like to bring in for her a string of gleaming trout; he'd like to lie on his side under the cliffs and just watch her. He had whittled two sticks for spoons; he ate his stew with his and forgot to talk.
And Betty, watching him covertly, wondered astutely if over the first meal she had cooked for him Jim Kendric wasn't readjusting his ancient ideas of woman. For some hidden reason, or for no reason at all, her silence was as deep as his.
After breakfast, however, it was Betty who started talk. They sought to plan definitely for tonight. Kendric told her of the way he and Barlow had come, of the Half Moon awaiting his and Barlow's return, of his determination to make use of the schooner if they could come to it. Barlow's plans were not at Kendric's disposal; the sailor might be counting on the vessel and he might not. At any rate he and Betty could slip down the gulf in it and either take ship at La Paz, sending it back up the gulf then, or steer on to San Diego. Of course he would seek to get in touch with Barlow; he could send a message of some sort. But after all Barlow had taken the game into his own hands and had said that it was now each man for himself.
"We can make the trip during the night, if we can make the get-away," he told her. "We'll have to take a roundabout way at first, edging the valley along the foothills on this side until we're well past the ranch house, then cut across the shortest way and pick up the trail on the other side. We can take enough water in our milk tins to last us, especially since we're traveling in the cool."
"And if," suggested Betty, "the Half Moon isn't there? Or if Zoraida has set some of her men to watch for us there?"
Naturally he had thought of that. If they came to the gulf and a new problem of this sort offered itself, then it would be time to consider it.
"We'll just hope for the best," he answered, "and try to be ready for what comes."
Carefully they conserved each tiny fragment of food, using the flour sack for cupboard. They went cautiously to the entrance of their hiding place and for a long time crouched behind the bushes, watching the canon sides, seeking for a sign of Rios as they fancied Rios was seeking them. And during the quiet hours they explored the place in which they were.
First they considered the odd hole in the big boulder, seeking to find some logical reason for its being, asking themselves if it could have any connection whatever with the ancient hidden treasure. Clearly it was the result of human labor. Therefore it appeared to have its relation to an older order of civilization since it was not conceivable that a modern man had taken such a task upon himself. But its meaning baffled.
"It could be a sign, like a blazed tree or a cross scratched on a block of stone," said Kendric. "But it could mean anything. Or nothing," he was forced to admit.
It was only in the late afternoon, after a long period of inactivity and silence, that an inspiration came to Kendric. Meantime they had poked into every crack and cranny, they had scraped at any loose dirt on the ground, they had gone back and forth and up and down over every square inch of the place repeatedly. And Kendric thought that he had given up when the last idea came to him. He went quickly back to the boulder. Betty watched him interestedly.
"I thought we'd given that up," she said.
He had both hands on the boulder, his fingers gripping the edge of the baffling hole, and was seeking to shake the big block of rock. Betty came to his side.
"You think that it was made as a hand-hole? That you can turn the rock over?"
"It does move—just a little," he said. He put all of his strength into a fresh attack. The boulder trembled slightly—that was all.
"I'll bet you my half of the loot that I've got the hang of it, Miss Betty," he announced triumphantly.
"Wait and see."
He began looking about him for something.
"If I only dared slip outside for a minute," he said. Then his eye fell on the rifle. "We'll have to make this do. I run a risk of jamming the front sight but I guess we can fix that."
He protected the sight as well as he could by wrapping his handkerchief about it. The muzzle of the gun he thrust down into the hole in the rock.
"Get it now?" he asked. "If that hole wasn't made to allow a lever to be inserted, then tell me what it was made for. And here's even the place to stand while a man uses it! I'll double the bet!"
That excitement which always gets into any man's blood when he believes that he is on the threshold of a golden discovery, already shone in his eyes. He stepped to a sort of shelf in the cavern wall close to the boulder, so that now his feet were on a level with the top of the rock he meant to move. So he could just reach out and grasp the butt of the rifle. Betty stood by, watching with an eagerness no less than his own. Gradually he set his force at work on his lever, trying this way and that. And then—
"It's moving!" cried Betty. "The rock is turning!"
And now it turned readily, his leverage being ample to the task.
"Look under the rock as it tips back," he told Betty. "See if there isn't a hole under it. Big enough for a man to go through!"
"Yes!" answered Betty after a breathless fashion. "Yes. A little more. Oh, come see. It looks almost like steps going down!"
"I'll have to force it back a little farther," he returned. "Maybe it will balance there. If not we'll have to get loose stones and wedge under it."
He pried it further and further until at last it would not budge another inch. He loosened his grip a trifle on the rifle-lever and the rock began to settle back into its former place. But Betty had seen and already was bringing fragments of stone to block under the edges.
"Now," she called. "Come see."
He jumped down; the boulder, wedged securely, lay on its side. He went to Betty and from what they saw before them they looked into each other's eyes wonderingly.
"The tale was true," he said with conviction. "You and I have found the way to the treasure."
In the floor was an opening a couple of feet square. Very rude, uneven steps led down, vanishing in a forbidding black dark. Kendric lay flat and looked down. Little by little he could penetrate a bit further, but in the end there lay a region of impenetrable darkness into which the steps merged.
"You're going down there!" gasped Betty.
"Am I?" he laughed. "You wouldn't want us to skip out tonight without even having looked into it, would you?"
"N-o." But she hesitated and even shuddered as she too lay down and peered into the forbidding place.
"We'll not take any chances we don't have to." He got up and began immediately to make his few preparations. "Here's the rifle; I'll leave it handy for you in case our friend Rios should surprise us. I'll take a handful of stuff with me to burn for a torch. And we'll have another look out into the canon to begin with."
He drew out the rifle and gave it to Betty. He placed other stones with the ones she had slipped under the edges of the boulders. And finally he went to look out into the canon.
"No one in sight," he reported. "And now, here goes."
He sat down at the edge of the opening in the floor, set a match to his crude torch, grinned comfortingly up at Betty and wriggled over and set his foot to the first step. As he did so there came to him an unpleasant memory of the fashion in which Zoraida had guarded her own secret places with rattlesnakes; he wondered if any of the ugly brutes lived down here? As it happened the thought had its influence in saving him from mishap later. For, though he came upon no snakes, he went warily and thus avoided another danger.
His torch burnt vilely and smoked copiously. But what faint light it afforded was sufficient. Step by step he went down until feet and legs and then entire body were lost to Betty above; she had set the rifle aside and was kneeling, her hands clasped in her excitement. Now she could see only his head and the torch held high; he looked up and smiled at her and waved the faggot. Then she saw only the dimly burning fire and the hand clutching it. And dimmer and dimmer grew his light until she strained her eyes to catch a glint of it and could not tell if it were being extinguished for want of dean air or if he were very, very far below her.
"Jim!" she called.
"All right," his voice floated back to her.
He had reached the bottom of the stone stairway; his feet shifting back and forth informed him that he was on a rock floor that was full of inequalities and that pitched steeply ahead of him. His fire was almost out, deteriorating into a mere smudge curling up from dying embers. The air was bad, thick and heavy; breathing was difficult. He looked up and made out the dim square by which Betty knelt. He could go a little further without danger, since if the air grew worse he could still turn and run back up the steps? The floor seemed to be pitching still more steeply. Fearful of a precipice or a pit and a fall, he went down on his hands and knees and crept on. Thus he held his poor torch before him and thus he made a first discovery. The smoke was drifting steadily into his face. And that meant a current of air.
Still crawling, he pressed forward eagerly, sniffing the air. But he relaxed none of his caution; the floor underneath still pitched steeply and, it seemed to him, grew steeper. Then his light began to brighten; the embers glowed and when he blew on them, broke again into flame. He looked up; he could not see the square of light above now. Evidently he was passing into some sort of wide tunnel or lengthy chamber. Dimly he could descry walls on either side of him. Ahead was only black emptiness; underfoot the uneven floor seeming to grow smoother and to slant still more abruptly downward.
"I'd better go easy," he told himself grimly. "If a man started sliding here I wonder where he'd land!"
Decidedly the air was better. He filled his lungs and stopped where he was, moving his torch above his head, lowering it, peering about him on all sides. At last he made out that a dozen steps further on there was a level space about which the walls were squared so as to give the effect of a small room. He drew nearer step by step and again was forced to kneel and then feel his way forward with his hands for the floor under him grew steadily steeper so that it was difficult to keep from sliding down the incline. When he saw his way sufficiently clearly he did slide the last three or four feet. And now, as again his torch flared and the air freshened in his nostrils, he saw that which put an eager excitement in his blood. The small room had every appearance of an ancient storeroom. He saw objects piled on the floor, objects of strange designs, cups and pitchers and vessels of various shapes. He caught one up and it was heavy. He clanked two together and the mellow, bell-like sound had the golden note.
"Solid gold," he muttered. And as something upon one of the vessels—it was a drinking goblet of ornate design—caught the light and shone back at him like imprisoned fire, "Encrusted with precious stones!"
He put the things down and looked further. There was a big chest. As his foot struck it it burst asunder and tumbled its contents to the floor. From the disordered heap there shone forth from countless places the colorful glow of jewels. He passed to another chest, a smaller one placed as in a position of honor upon a square tablet of rock. He held his torch close and looked in; he thrust in his hand and withdrew it filled with pearls. Even he, no connoisseur like Barlow, would have staked his life on their genuineness. They were of many sizes but more large ones among them than small; their soft, rich loveliness dimmed even those of Zoraida's wearing.
"A man could carry a million dollars out of here in his hands!"
He went on. But what he held in his hand he thrust into his pocket as he went. The remembrance of Zoraida's rattlesnakes came to him abruptly. Thus he moved with renewed caution and thus he was saved from a misadventure. For even so he almost stepped to a fall. Between two heaps of tumbled articles was a square hole, sheer and black, several feet across. He stooped over it. The air came up with a rush. At first he could see only a little way. Then he made out that the shaft went straight down only a few feet and then slanted away in a great chute like the floor down which he had already come, only so much steeper that he knew had he fallen there would have been no return possible for him. To what eventual landing place would he have plunged? For a moment or so his eyes strained in vain into the gloom. Slowly faint and then growing detail rewarded him. It was but a small section offered him because of the angling of the tunnel. But before a watch could have ticked ten times he knew into what place he would have fallen, into what regions his glance had penetrated. The light was dim down yonder but he knew that he was looking down into the gardens of the golden king of Tezcuco.
"Another way into the hidden place, and one that Zoraida herself knows nothing of," he thought. "If a man took this drop and then the slide, he'd land with the breath jolted out of him but there is shrubbery to fall on and it wouldn't kill him. But in there he'd stay! There would be no climbing back up the slippery chute."
He withdrew and looked about him again. Expecting pitfalls, he took no single step without making sure first. He crossed the chamber and upon the further side he came to a second pit and a second tunnel. This like the first was steep and smooth; this also gave him a glint of light at the further end. The light was dim; he made out that the distant mouth of the tunnel was obscured by a tangle of brush and scrub trees.
"Another underground garden?" he wondered. "Or the outside world?"
He filled his lungs with the air flowing upward. He fancied that it had a fresher, sweeter smell, that there was the wholesomeness of sunlight in it.
"It would be a joke," was his quick thought, "if there were a way out for us here while Rios watches the canon above!"
It was then that there came to him, faint from far above, Betty's scream. He whirled and ran. Again he heard her screams, echoing wildly. As he stumbled on there came to him the muffled sound of a rifle-shot.
HOW ONE RETURNS UNWILLINGLY WHITHER HE WOULD WILLINGLY ENTER BY ANOTHER DOOR
Again and again as he ran Kendric shouted to Betty that he was coming. Then at last, after an agony of fear and silence, he heard her call in answer. He stumbled but ran on. When he came where he could see the square of light marking the hole which led to the level where she was, he caught his first glimpse of Betty. She was standing by the opening, tense to the finger tips that were tight about the rifle. He sped up the steps and to her side. And he was treated to the sight of Ruiz Rios, lying white-faced on the floor, a hand at his shoulder and that hand dyed red. Beside him, where it had fallen, was his revolver.
"I—I shot him!" Betty gasped.
"And serves him right," cried Kendric heartily. He took the gun from her hands and strode over to Rios while, at last, Betty's face was hidden by her shaking hands. "So you're on the job, are you?"
Rios looked sick and miserable. But slowly, as he lifted his black eyes to the man standing over him the old evil fires played in them. He stirred a little and lay back.
"My shoulder is broken," he groaned.
"You're in luck to be alive," Kendric told him sternly. "What do you want here?"
"I'll bleed to death!" Quick fright sent a shiver through him. "For the love of God stop the blood for me."
Kendric could scarcely do less than look at the wound. Presently he straightened up with a grunt of disgust.
"It's only a flesh wound," he said coolly. "The bone isn't even touched and it's a clean hole. You'll last for a lot of devilment yet."
Rios sat up. He felt of his hurt with tender fingers and slowly the fear went out of his look and his old craft and hate came back.
"You've found the treasure—here," he said. "You will have to talk with me before you touch it, senor."
"You talk big, Rios," snapped Kendric angrily. "It strikes me that you are just now in no position to dictate. You should thank your stars if, presently, we let you go about your business. Whether or not we have found treasure does not concern you."
So intent was he upon Rios, so occupied with considering what was to be done with him, that he did not note who it was who had come to stand in the narrow cleft between them and the entrance from the canon side. But Betty, her hands dropping from her horrified face saw.
"Oh," cried Betty. "We are lost!"
Then he saw that following Rios had come Zoraida and that she stood and looked at them, her eyes filled with mockery and triumph.
"Who is it that speaks of what shall be done with that which rightfully is Zoraida's?" she demanded, her voice ringing out boldly. "And you two, who thought to escape me, I have you in a trap!"
Kendric swung his rifle about so that the muzzle was towards her. His eyes hardened.
"If we have to shoot our way out of this, we're going free," he told her shortly.
Zoraida's only answer came quickly, unexpectedly, before he could step forward. Her hand went to her bosom; out came her silver whistle; a blast shrilled forth from it, loud and penetrating.
"Twenty of my men, all armed, hear that," she said defiantly. "They are just below. Listen and you will hear them coming."
The sound, first of men's voices somewhere outside, then of rattling stones under running feet, told that Zoraida spoke truly. Kendric heard and for an instant was struck motionless with indecision. The entrance was narrow and he could make a fight for it—there was Betty to think of, behind him but in the path of glancing bullets—there was Rios, wounded but treacherous—there was Zoraida—there was the treasure below and he had no mind to see it snatched from under his eyes—
Then the one chance presented itself to him, clear and imperative.
"Rios," he commanded, "down you go through that hole or I swear to God I'll blow your brains out! Quick! And Zoraida, you with him." He sprang upon her and dragged her with him, shoving her toward the opening in the floor. He took time then to whirl and fire one shot along the narrow way which Zoraida's men must come, confident that they would pause, if only for an instant. "Down, Rios. Down, Zoraida!"
A sort of fury looked out of his eyes and even Betty drew back from him fearfully. He grasped Rios by the shoulder and the Mexican seeing the look in his eyes made no resistance. Had he fought back he would have been killed and he knew it. He went down the steps. Zoraida would have held back but again Kendric's hand, rough on her arm, sent her forward and, rather than fall, she was forced to Rios's heels. Kendric fired again along the cleft. Then he began knocking loose the stones which held the lever-rock back. When only one stone kept the boulder in place, he called sharply to Betty:
"Down we go with them. Then I'll knock that stone out from below and we'll have time to breathe before they come on us."
"But," exclaimed Betty, "can we lift it again from below?"
"God knows," he returned. "I think so. But I don't know that we'll have to; I think there's another way out. Hurry."
Voices were calling excitedly from without. Plainly the men taking Zoraida's pay would in time steel themselves to making an entrance, but just as plainly they saw death in store for some of them and hesitated. It struck Kendric that their delay would give him time for one other thing and that that other thing would mean much more time gained later on. He scooped up handful after handful of dirt and poured it into the lever-hole in the boulder, filling it even with the surface. Thus, it would not be readily detected and might never be noted. Then, snatching up his rifle and the bag of food, he ran down the steps with Betty. A thrust with his rifle barrel, and a quick jerk back, knocked the wedge stone free and saved him his gun. The boulder toppled back into place; the stairway and tunnel below were plunged into absolute darkness.
Kendric caught Betty's hand.
"This way," he told her. "It's straight going and no danger for a while. Rios, Zoraida! Stand where you are and wait for us or I'll start shooting wild. Where are you?"
"Here," growled Rios, his voice indicating that he had gone no great distance.
Zoraida did not answer. Kendric went on a step or two and then struck a match. By its short-lived light he made out Zoraida standing close to Rios. Then the flame burned out.
"Straight ahead," commanded Kendric. When there was no sound of a step being taken, he drew Betty's hand through his arm so as to have both of his hands free and went forward.
"I can hardly breathe," whispered Betty. He felt her hand tighten on his arm. "It is getting terribly steep underfoot——"
He came to where Rios was and set the rifle barrel in the small of his back. Rios cursed bitterly but moved on. Kendric's hand found Zoraida's arm and gripped it tightly.
"We're all together in this," he said sharply. "And don't start your old favorite knife act. This is no time for foolery."
Zoraida moved on. But again she set her whistle to her lips and thereafter she called out loudly to her men, commanding them to follow swiftly.
"They won't hear you," said Kendric. "And they couldn't obey you this time anyhow. Hurry; we'll all stifle if we don't get out of this foul air. Rios, give me some matches; mine are getting short."
Rios, without comment, having as little love as another for the uncertainty of the dark about him, did as he was commanded. He also saved half of his box and began striking them himself. And thus they went on, all of them save Kendric wondering. Making the last, steepest descent, they stood huddled together in the treasure chamber.
"Here," said Kendric, releasing Zoraida, "we have fresh air. Here we can talk. And, if we are sensible people, a new day can begin for all of us here."
Ruiz Rios's wound must have been even less severe than Kendric had supposed it. For now the Mexican seemed utterly to have lost consciousness of it. He was striking fresh matches; he stooped and picked up something at his foot; a little gasp broke from him. He tossed it down, caught up something else.
"Gold!" he muttered. "Gold everywhere!"
Zoraida looked about her, seeming unmoved. Her eyes followed Rios contemptuously, roved away about the room, tarried only briefly with the heaped-up treasure, sped to Kendric and to Betty.
"You are fools, fools!" she taunted them. "All thanks, Senor Kendric, for having led me straight to that for which I have been looking all my life."
Rios had come back to her side, both hands full.
"Zoraida," he said swiftly, "let us talk reason as the American says. We have this!" He held up his hands; his eyes gloated. "Let them have their lives and go, so that they take nothing in their hands. Look at this! Here——"
His words trailed off abruptly in a scream of terror. He had moved only a trifle as he spoke, he had taken a step backward between the two high heaps of treasure where the pit was. He was falling—he threw out his arms, clutching wildly. In a flash he was gone from sight. But not alone. For his hand, seeking to save him, had caught at Zoraida and she was snatched back, overbalanced, drawn down with him. Her scream rose above his cry of terror. Both vanished and Jim and Betty stood alone, looking into each other's wide eyes.
"Do you think—they are dead?" faltered the girl.
They went to the hole and looked down. The view which Kendric had seen before slowly disentangled itself from the darkness. They saw nothing of those who had fallen.
"It would mean the short fall here," said Kendric musingly, "the steep slide and no doubt another drop at the end. We wouldn't be able to see them at first. But someway, I don't believe they are dead!"
He did not explain then; it would take too long and they had their own salvation to work out. But here was his thought: Zoraida had dropped back into the gardens of the golden king. He did not believe she would be able to climb up this way again. And he did not believe that she would have with her the many keys needed to open the way she knew. It impressed him that here might be the judgment of a just God—Zoraida immured for all time in the heart of ancient Mexico. Zoraida with her priests and young men and children whom her stern decree had imprisoned here. Zoraida and Ruiz Rios together in the place of hidden treasure.
REGARDING A NECKLACE OF PEARLS AND CERTAIN PLANS OF TWO WHO WERE MEANT TO BE ONE
From afar, reaching them only faintly, came the sounds of men's voices, Zoraida's men clamoring above, mystified and with ample cause.
"It may be our chance is now, not tonight," said Kendric. "Although it's but a little way from the house some of them, if not all, will have ridden; their horses will be down in the canon. If we can slip out this way and come to the horses while they're looking for us up there——"
"This way?" Betty for an instant wondered if he meant to follow Zoraida and Rios.
"There is another way," he told her. "Come.—But first, we'll not go empty handed."
He began a quick rummaging among the ancient chests.
"Hurry," pleaded the girl. "What do we want with treasure? They may find us at any second. Oh, hurry!"
"Coming," he answered. "But here are wings to fly with." She saw him putting a number of small objects into his pockets. He moved to another point and she could not see what he was doing, could only guess that still he was stuffing something into the provision bag and further cramming his pockets. Just then there was in Betty's soul no thirst for wealth, just the mighty yearning for the open country and flight and the peace of safety afar.
"Here I am." Jim was again at her side. He caught her arm. "This way."
He led her to that other pit giving entrance to the second tunnel. At another time Betty might have hesitated to slip down into it; now she was eager for anything that gave the vaguest hope of flight. For the faint far voices still clamored and she feared that the hounds that hunted in Zoraida's wake might find the secret of the boulder and roll it back with many hands and rush down upon them.
But Kendric held her back while he first went down. He gripped the edges of the pit with his hands and lowered himself to the length of his arms and dropped. It was but a short fall and he landed safely and steadied himself and managed to save himself from going down the slide by clutching at the rock wall. Betty handed down the rifle and bag, then lowered herself and he caught her in his arms. And then, in no little uncertainty and not without grave dread of what dangers they might encounter, they went on.
The slide was steep and yet by going very guardedly, lying face down at times and inching down cautiously, they made a slow descent. The tunnel grew steadily smaller as they progressed; their bodies shut off the light. The terrible thought presented itself to Kendric that when they came to the outlet it might be too small for them to pass through; and that to return up the tunnel was a task which would present its difficulties. So, when they came to a place where Betty could cling on and keep from slipping, he called to her to wait while he went on.
The time had come when his rifle was an encumbrance; he needed both hands to keep from slipping. He had had the forethought to turn the muzzle downward, since Betty was above him. Now he craned his neck and sought to peer down along his body. Far away, somewhere, was a glint of sunlight, small but full of promise. He saw, as he had seen before, a tangle of brush. He wondered if it were a clump of bushes on a little flat? Or if they were shrubs clinging to some steep face of cliff? When at last he came to the mouth of this chute—if it were wide enough for a man's body to pass through—would the man have reached safety or would he be precipitated through space and down a fifty foot fall of rock?
"The bushes ought to stop the rifle," he decided. "At any rate the time has come when I need both hands." And he let it slide past him and sought to watch it as it clattered along the incline. But he saw nothing of it in the dim passage until it struck the fringe of bushes. Then it crashed through and was gone—without telling him how and where! The bag, a knot tied in it, he sent down after the gun.
His misgivings were considerable but he went on. He called out to Betty: "It looks all right. Hold on till I call," and began inching downward again. With his feet he sought to judge the slope below him. It seemed to be growing steeper. Still he went on and down. He caught at any unevenness in the rock he could lay hand upon, lowering himself to the length of his arm, groping for handhold and foothold everywhere. Then a handhold to which he had entrusted his weight betrayed him, the tiny sliver of stone scaled off and he began to slip. He clutched wildly but his body gained fresh momentum. He heard Betty shriek above him. He had a vision of himself plunging down the cliffs. Then he knew that he had struck the bushes, had broken through, was rolling down a steep slope, rolling and rolling.
The breath jolted out of him, he was brought up with a jerk in another clump of bushes, wild sage in a little level space. He hastily jumped up and began to scramble back up toward the tunnel's mouth. He could not see it from below, he could see only the patch of brush which, since it was directly above him, must conceal it. He saw his rifle where it stood on end, the muzzle jammed between two rocks. He wanted to call to Betty but did not dare, not knowing how close some of Zoraida's men might be. Betty could not hold on there forever; she would slip as he had done or, frightened terribly, by now she might be seeking frenziedly to make her way back to the treasure chamber.
But as it happened Betty was to make the descent with less violence than Kendric's. She had thought that surely Jim had been snatched away from her to a broken death below; she had gone dizzy with sick fear; she had struggled for a securer grip—and she, too, had slipped. Down she sped, half fainting. But somewhere her wide sash caught and held briefly, letting her slip again before her fingers could find a hold, but breaking the momentum of her progress. So, when she was shot out into the open, a few yards above Kendric, the brush all but stopped her. And then, as she was slipping by him, Kendric caught her and held her.
Betty sat up and stared at him incredulously. Then there came into her eyes such a light as Jim Kendric had never seen in eyes of man or woman.
"I thought you were dead," said Betty simply. "And I did not want to live."
He helped her to her feet and they hurried down the slope. He caught up his rifle, merely grunted at the discovery of a sight knocked off, found near it the bag of food and treasure, and led the way down into the canon. A glance upward showed him no sign of Zoraida's men.
"There are the horses," whispered Betty.
Down in the bed of the ravine were a dozen or more saddled ponies. They stood where their riders had left them, their reins over their heads and dragging on the ground.
"Run!" said Kendric. "If we can get into saddle before they see us we're as good as at home!"
Hand in hand they ran, stumbling along the slope, crashing through the brush. But as they drew nearer and the ponies pricked up their ears they forced themselves to go slowly. Kendric caught the nearest horse, tarrying for no picking and choosing, and helped Betty up into the saddle. The next moment he, too, was mounted. He looked again up the mountainside. Still no sign of Zoraida's men. A broad grin of high satisfaction testified that Jim Kendric found this new arrangement of mundane affairs highly to his liking.
"We'll drive these other ponies on ahead of us," he suggested. "Until they're a good five miles off. And then we'll see how fast a cowpony can run!"
So, herding a lot of saddled horses ahead of them, reins flying and soon putting panic into the animals, Jim and Betty rode down into the valley. They looked down to the big adobe house and saw no one; the place slept tranquilly in the late afternoon sun. They passed the corrals and still saw no one. If any of her men had not followed Zoraida, they were lounging under cover. The maids would be about the evening meal and table setting, in the patio or in the house.
Straight across the valley they drove the ponies and there, in the first foothills scattered and left them. Then they settled down to hard riding, both praying mutely that when they came to the gulf and the beach they would find the Half Moon awaiting them.
The stars were out when they came to the beach where only a few days ago Kendric and Barlow had landed. And there, at anchor, rode the Half Moon. They saw her lights and they made out the hulk of her. Kendric shouted and fired his rifle. Almost immediately came an answering hail, the melodious voice of Nigger Ben. They saw a lantern go down over the side, they watched it bob and dance and made out presently that it was coming toward them. They heard Nigger Ben's voice, chanting monotonously, as he pulled at the oars of the small boat.
"Howdy, Cap'n, howdy!" cried Ben joyously. He took in the small figure which had dismounted at Kendric's side and ducked his head and included her in his greetings with a "Howdy, Miss." And then, looking in vain for another member of the party: "Where's Cap'n Barlow?"
"Let's get on board, Ben," answered Kendric. "I'll tell you there."
So they stepped into the dingey and pushed off and rowed back to the Half Moon.
"There's a gent here says he's a frien' of your'n, Cap," said Ben. "Ah dunno. Anyhows, he's been here all day an' we're watchin' he don't make no mischief."
They went up over the side and Kendric showed Betty straightway to the cabin that was to be hers. Then he turned wonderingly to Ben. He could only think of Bruce, since it wasn't Barlow——
And Bruce it was. The boy came forth from the shadows, standing before Kendric looking at once dejected and defiant and shamefaced.
"I was a damn' fool, Jim," he said bluntly. "Forget it, if you can, and take a passenger back to the States with you. Or tell me to go to hell—and I guess I'll tuck my tail between my legs and go."
Kendric's hand went out impulsively and he cried with great heartiness:
"Forget it, boy.—What about Barlow?"
"Barlow's like a crazy man," said Bruce. He spoke quickly as though eager to get through with what he had to say. "After that cursed game of cards he got the same sort of a message I got; we were to wait, each in his own room, for—for her." He hesitated; Kendric understood that it hurt him even to refer to Zoraida. "We waited a long time. Then something happened which I know little about; I guess you know all of it. At any rate, when she burst in on us—we had gotten tired waiting and were in the patio—she, too, was like one gone mad. We had heard the shooting outside but when we started to run out some of her men threw guns on us and held us back. She came running in, terribly excited. When I tried to speak she cursed me, called me a fool, told me that she had never loved any but one man and that that man was—was you. Then she swore that she was going to see you dead and Betty Gordon dead with you. I guess I came to my senses a little at that."
"And Barlow?" insisted Kendric. Bruce had paused, was staring off into the night, seemed to have forgotten to go on.
"I had two words with Barlow when she left us. He looked ready for murder and just snapped out that he was going to stay until he lined his pockets. Rios came in. He told us you were on the run, trying to make it down here. He offered to get me and Barlow clear; he seemed anxious to have us both gone. He promised us we'd be dead in twenty-four hours if we stayed; he tipped his hand enough to say that there was loot to be had and he meant to have his half and didn't care what happened to us so long as we got out of the way. I came, hoping that you'd break through and get here. I told Barlow I was coming. He just shrugged his shoulders at that and said he'd stay; if we could square for the rent of the Half Moon in San Diego we could have her. Otherwise, for God's sake to sink her in the ocean and let the old man know. And off he went, looking for—for her."
"You've had a hard deal, Bruce." Kendric put a kindly hand on the boy's shoulder. "But you'll come alive yet. I've made a haul today; just how big I won't know until we get home. But enough, I'll gamble to stake you to a new start. Now, let's get going. And good luck to poor old Barlow. It's his game to play his way."
They slipped out into the gulf, Nigger Ben and Philippine Charlie content to accept the explanation Kendric gave them of Barlow's absence. Bruce, taciturn and moody, went to the stern and stood looking back toward the black line of the receding coast until long after darkness blotted it out. Kendric went to Betty's cabin and rapped.
"Will you come for a moment to the main cabin?" he asked.
When she came he had a lamp on the table. He shut the door and locked it. Then, without a word between them, he began emptying his pockets. She saw him pile up a great number of little square bars that clanked musically.
"Solid gold," he said gravely.
Then he poured forth the pearls. There was strings and loops, necklaces and broad bands made of many strings laced together. They shone softly, gloriously there in the swaying cabin of the Half Moon. The finest of them all fashioned into a superb necklace he threw with a sudden gesture about Betty's throat.
"And on top of all that—we're headed for home!" said Kendric.
"Home!" Betty's eyes shone more gloriously than the pearls.
"And thus ends our little camping trip. Tell me, Betty, haven't you any desire for a real camping trip in our own mountains? That place that I know, where the little hidden valley is and the lake——"
"Tell me about it," said Betty.
Pearls and gold heaped on the table, pearls about Betty's throat, and they talked of pack and trail and a little green lodge to be made of fir boughs.