For awhile the girl sat in silence, and presently her father arose and entered the house. Shortly after she followed him, reappearing soon in riding togs and walking rapidly to the corrals. Here she found an American cowboy busily engaged in whittling a stick as he sat upon an upturned cracker box and shot accurate streams of tobacco juice at a couple of industrious tumble bugs that had had the great impudence to roll their little ball of provender within the whittler's range.
"O Eddie!" she cried.
The man looked up, and was at once electrified into action. He sprang to his feet and whipped off his sombrero. A broad smile illumined his freckled face.
"Yes, miss," he answered. "What can I do for you?"
"Saddle a pony for me, Eddie," she explained. "I want to take a little ride."
"Sure!" he assured her cheerily. "Have it ready in a jiffy," and away he went, uncoiling his riata, toward the little group of saddle ponies which stood in the corral against necessity for instant use.
In a couple of minutes he came back leading one, which he tied to the corral bars.
"But I can't ride that horse," exclaimed the girl. "He bucks."
"Sure," said Eddie. "I'm a-goin' to ride him."
"Oh, are you going somewhere?" she asked.
"I'm goin' with you, miss," announced Eddie, sheepishly.
"But I didn't ask you, Eddie, and I don't want you—today," she urged.
"Sorry, miss," he threw back over his shoulder as he walked back to rope a second pony; "but them's orders. You're not to be allowed to ride no place without a escort. 'Twouldn't be safe neither, miss," he almost pleaded, "an' I won't hinder you none. I'll ride behind far enough to be there ef I'm needed."
Directly he came back with another pony, a sad-eyed, gentle-appearing little beast, and commenced saddling and bridling the two.
"Will you promise," she asked, after watching him in silence for a time, "that you will tell no one where I go or whom I see?"
"Cross my heart hope to die," he assured her.
"All right, Eddie, then I'll let you come with me, and you can ride beside me, instead of behind."
Across the flat they rode, following the windings of the river road, one mile, two, five, ten. Eddie had long since been wondering what the purpose of so steady a pace could be. This was no pleasure ride which took the boss's daughter—"heifer," Eddie would have called her—ten miles up river at a hard trot. Eddie was worried, too. They had passed the danger line, and were well within the stamping ground of Pesita and his retainers. Here each little adobe dwelling, and they were scattered at intervals of a mile or more along the river, contained a rabid partisan of Pesita, or it contained no one—Pesita had seen to this latter condition personally.
At last the young lady drew rein before a squalid and dilapidated hut. Eddie gasped. It was Jose's, and Jose was a notorious scoundrel whom old age alone kept from the active pursuit of the only calling he ever had known—brigandage. Why should the boss's daughter come to Jose? Jose was hand in glove with every cutthroat in Chihuahua, or at least within a radius of two hundred miles of his abode.
Barbara swung herself from the saddle, and handed her bridle reins to Eddie.
"Hold him, please," she said. "I'll be gone but a moment."
"You're not goin' in there to see old Jose alone?" gasped Eddie.
"Why not?" she asked. "If you're afraid you can leave my horse and ride along home."
Eddie colored to the roots of his sandy hair, and kept silent. The girl approached the doorway of the mean hovel and peered within. At one end sat a bent old man, smoking. He looked up as Barbara's figure darkened the doorway.
"Jose!" said the girl.
The old man rose to his feet and came toward her.
"Eh? Senorita, eh?" he cackled.
"You are Jose?" she asked.
"Si, senorita," replied the old Indian. "What can poor old Jose do to serve the beautiful senorita?"
"You can carry a message to one of Pesita's officers," replied the girl. "I have heard much about you since I came to Mexico. I know that there is not another man in this part of Chihuahua who may so easily reach Pesita as you." She raised her hand for silence as the Indian would have protested. Then she reached into the pocket of her riding breeches and withdrew a handful of silver which she permitted to trickle, tinklingly, from one palm to the other. "I wish you to go to the camp of Pesita," she continued, "and carry word to the man who robbed the bank at Cuivaca—he is an American—that his friend, Senor Bridge has been captured by Villa and is being held for execution in Cuivaca. You must go at once—you must get word to Senor Bridge's friend so that help may reach Senor Bridge before dawn. Do you understand?"
The Indian nodded assent.
"Here," said the girl, "is a payment on account. When I know that you delivered the message in time you shall have as much more. Will you do it?"
"I will try," said the Indian, and stretched forth a clawlike hand for the money.
"Good!" exclaimed Barbara. "Now start at once," and she dropped the silver coins into the old man's palm.
It was dusk when Captain Billy Byrne was summoned to the tent of Pesita. There he found a weazened, old Indian squatting at the side of the outlaw.
"Jose," said Pesita, "has word for you."
Billy Byrne turned questioningly toward the Indian.
"I have been sent, Senor Capitan," explained Jose, "by the beautiful senorita of El Orobo Rancho to tell you that your friend, Senor Bridge, has been captured by General Villa, and is being held at Cuivaca, where he will doubtless be shot—if help does not reach him before tomorrow morning."
Pesita was looking questioningly at Byrne. Since the gringo had returned from Cuivaca with the loot of the bank and turned the last penny of it over to him the outlaw had looked upon his new captain as something just short of superhuman. To have robbed the bank thus easily while Villa's soldiers paced back and forth before the doorway seemed little short of an indication of miraculous powers, while to have turned the loot over intact to his chief, not asking for so much as a peso of it, was absolutely incredible.
Pesita could not understand this man; but he admired him greatly and feared him, too. Such a man was worth a hundred of the ordinary run of humanity that enlisted beneath Pesita's banners. Byrne had but to ask a favor to have it granted, and now, when he called upon Pesita to furnish him with a suitable force for the rescue of Bridge the brigand enthusiastically acceded to his demands.
"I will come," he exclaimed, "and all my men shall ride with me. We will take Cuivaca by storm. We may even capture Villa himself."
"Wait a minute, bo," interrupted Billy Byrne. "Don't get excited. I'm lookin' to get my pal outen' Cuivaca. After that I don't care who you capture; but I'm goin' to get Bridgie out first. I ken do it with twenty-five men—if it ain't too late. Then, if you want to, you can shoot up the town. Lemme have the twenty-five, an' you hang around the edges with the rest of 'em 'til I'm done. Whaddaya say?"
Pesita was willing to agree to anything, and so it came that half an hour later Billy Byrne was leading a choice selection of some two dozen cutthroats down through the hills toward Cuivaca. While a couple of miles in the rear followed Pesita with the balance of his band.
Billy rode until the few remaining lights of Cuivaca shone but a short distance ahead and they could hear plainly the strains of a grating graphophone from beyond the open windows of a dance hall, and the voices of the sentries as they called the hour.
"Stay here," said Billy to a sergeant at his side, "until you hear a hoot owl cry three times from the direction of the barracks and guardhouse, then charge the opposite end of the town, firing off your carbines like hell an' yellin' yer heads off. Make all the racket you can, an' keep it up 'til you get 'em comin' in your direction, see? Then turn an' drop back slowly, eggin' 'em on, but holdin' 'em to it as long as you can. Do you get me, bo?"
From the mixture of Spanish and English and Granavenooish the sergeant gleaned enough of the intent of his commander to permit him to salute and admit that he understood what was required of him.
Having given his instructions Billy Byrne rode off to the west, circled Cuivaca and came close up upon the southern edge of the little village. Here he dismounted and left his horse hidden behind an outbuilding, while he crept cautiously forward to reconnoiter.
He knew that the force within the village had no reason to fear attack. Villa knew where the main bodies of his enemies lay, and that no force could approach Cuivaca without word of its coming reaching the garrison many hours in advance of the foe. That Pesita, or another of the several bandit chiefs in the neighborhood would dare descend upon a garrisoned town never for a moment entered the calculations of the rebel leader.
For these reasons Billy argued that Cuivaca would be poorly guarded. On the night he had spent there he had seen sentries before the bank, the guardhouse, and the barracks in addition to one who paced to and fro in front of the house in which the commander of the garrison maintained his headquarters. Aside from these the town was unguarded.
Nor were conditions different tonight. Billy came within a hundred yards of the guardhouse before he discovered a sentinel. The fellow lolled upon his gun in front of the building—an adobe structure in the rear of the barracks. The other three sides of the guardhouse appeared to be unwatched.
Billy threw himself upon his stomach and crawled slowly forward stopping often. The sentry seemed asleep. He did not move. Billy reached the shadow at the side of the structure and some fifty feet from the soldier without detection. Then he rose to his feet directly beneath a barred window.
Within Bridge paced back and forth the length of the little building. He could not sleep. Tomorrow he was to be shot! Bridge did not wish to die. That very morning General Villa in person had examined him. The general had been exceedingly wroth—the sting of the theft of his funds still irritated him; but he had given Bridge no inkling as to his fate. It had remained for a fellow-prisoner to do that. This man, a deserter, was to be shot, so he said, with Bridge, a fact which gave him an additional twenty-four hours of life, since, he asserted, General Villa wished to be elsewhere than in Cuivaca when an American was executed. Thus he could disclaim responsibility for the act.
The general was to depart in the morning. Shortly after, Bridge and the deserter would be led out and blindfolded before a stone wall—if there was such a thing, or a brick wall, or an adobe wall. It made little difference to the deserter, or to Bridge either. The wall was but a trivial factor. It might go far to add romance to whomever should read of the affair later; but in so far as Bridge and the deserter were concerned it meant nothing. A billboard, thought Bridge, bearing the slogan: "Eventually! Why not now?" would have been equally as efficacious and far more appropriate.
The room in which he was confined was stuffy with the odor of accumulated filth. Two small barred windows alone gave means of ventilation. He and the deserter were the only prisoners. The latter slept as soundly as though the morrow held nothing more momentous in his destiny than any of the days that had preceded it. Bridge was moved to kick the fellow into consciousness of his impending fate. Instead he walked to the south window to fill his lungs with the free air beyond his prison pen, and gaze sorrowfully at the star-lit sky which he should never again behold.
In a low tone Bridge crooned a snatch of the poem that he and Billy liked best:
And you, my sweet Penelope, out there somewhere you wait for me, With buds of roses in your hair and kisses on your mouth.
Bridge's mental vision was concentrated upon the veranda of a white-walled ranchhouse to the east. He shook his head angrily.
"It's just as well," he thought. "She's not for me."
Something moved upon the ground beyond the window. Bridge became suddenly intent upon the thing. He saw it rise and resolve itself into the figure of a man, and then, in a low whisper, came a familiar voice:
"There ain't no roses in my hair, but there's a barker in my shirt, an' another at me side. Here's one of 'em. They got kisses beat a city block. How's the door o' this thing fastened?" The speaker was quite close to the window now, his face but a few inches from Bridge's.
"Billy!" ejaculated the condemned man.
"Surest thing you know; but about the door?"
"Just a heavy bar on the outside," replied Bridge.
"Easy," commented Billy, relieved. "Get ready to beat it when I open the door. I got a pony south o' town that'll have to carry double for a little way tonight."
"God bless you, Billy!" whispered Bridge, fervently.
"Lay low a few minutes," said Billy, and moved away toward the rear of the guardhouse.
A few minutes later there broke upon the night air the dismal hoot of an owl. At intervals of a few seconds it was repeated twice. The sentry before the guardhouse shifted his position and looked about, then he settled back, transferring his weight to the other foot, and resumed his bovine meditations.
The man at the rear of the guardhouse moved silently along the side of the structure until he stood within a few feet of the unsuspecting sentinel, hidden from him by the corner of the building. A heavy revolver dangled from his right hand. He held it loosely by the barrel, and waited.
For five minutes the silence of the night was unbroken, then from the east came a single shot, followed immediately by a scattering fusillade and a chorus of hoarse cries.
Billy Byrne smiled. The sentry resumed indications of quickness. From the barracks beyond the guardhouse came sharp commands and the sounds of men running. From the opposite end of the town the noise of battle welled up to ominous proportions.
Billy heard the soldiers stream from their quarters and a moment later saw them trot up the street at the double. Everyone was moving toward the opposite end of the town except the lone sentinel before the guardhouse. The moment seemed propitious for his attempt.
Billy peered around the corner of the guardhouse. Conditions were just as he had pictured they would be. The sentry stood gazing in the direction of the firing, his back toward the guardhouse door and Billy.
With a bound the American cleared the space between himself and the unsuspecting and unfortunate soldier. The butt of the heavy revolver fell, almost noiselessly, upon the back of the sentry's head, and the man sank to the ground without even a moan.
Turning to the door Billy knocked the bar from its place, the door swung in and Bridge slipped through to liberty.
"Quick!" said Billy. "Follow me," and turned at a rapid run toward the south edge of the town. He made no effort now to conceal his movements. Speed was the only essential, and the two covered the ground swiftly and openly without any attempt to take advantage of cover.
They reached Billy's horse unnoticed, and a moment later were trotting toward the west to circle the town and regain the trail to the north and safety.
To the east they heard the diminishing rifle fire of the combatants as Pesita's men fell steadily back before the defenders, and drew them away from Cuivaca in accordance with Billy's plan.
"Like takin' candy from a baby," said Billy, when the flickering lights of Cuivaca shone to the south of them, and the road ahead lay clear to the rendezvous of the brigands.
"Yes," agreed Bridge; "but what I'd like to know, Billy, is how you found out I was there."
"Penelope," said Byrne, laughing.
"Penelope!" queried Bridge. "I'm not at all sure that I follow you, Billy."
"Well, seein' as you're sittin' on behind you can't be leadin' me," returned Billy; "but cuttin' the kid it was a skirt tipped it off to me where you was—the beautiful senorita of El Orobo Rancho, I think Jose called her. Now are you hep?"
Bridge gave an exclamation of astonishment. "God bless her!" he said. "She did that for me?"
"She sure did," Billy assured him, "an' I'll bet an iron case she's a-waitin' for you there with buds o' roses in her hair an' kisses on her mouth, you old son-of-a-gun, you." Billy laughed happily. He was happy anyway at having rescued Bridge, and the knowledge that his friend was in love and that the girl reciprocated his affection—all of which Billy assumed as the only explanation of her interest in Bridge—only added to his joy. "She ain't a greaser is she?" he asked presently.
"I should say not," replied Bridge. "She's a perfect queen from New York City; but, Billy, she's not for me. What she did was prompted by a generous heart. She couldn't care for me, Billy. Her father is a wealthy man—he could have the pick of the land—of many lands—if she cared to marry. You don't think for a minute she'd want a hobo, do you?"
"You can't most always tell," replied Billy, a trifle sadly. "I knew such a queen once who would have chosen a mucker, if he'd a-let her. You're stuck on her, ol' man?"
"I'm afraid I am, Billy," Bridge admitted; "but what's the use? Let's forget it. Oh, say, is this the horse I let you take the night you robbed the bank?"
"Yes," said Billy; "same little pony, an' a mighty well-behaved one, too. Why?"
"It's hers," said Bridge.
"An' she wants it back?"
"She didn't say so; but I'd like to get it to her some way," said Bridge.
"You ride it back when you go," suggested Billy.
"But I can't go back," said Bridge; "it was Grayson, the foreman, who made it so hot for me I had to leave. He tried to arrest me and send me to Villa."
"What for?" asked Billy.
"He didn't like me, and wanted to get rid of me." Bridge wouldn't say that his relations with Billy had brought him into trouble.
"Oh, well, I'll take it back myself then, and at the same time I'll tell Penelope what a regular fellow you are, and punch in the foreman's face for good luck."
"No, you mustn't go there. They know you now. It was some of El Orobo's men you shot up day before yesterday when you took their steers from them. They recognized the pony, and one of them had seen you in Cuivaca the night of the robbery. They would be sure to get you, Billy."
Shortly the two came in touch with the retreating Pesitistas who were riding slowly toward their mountain camp. Their pursuers had long since given up the chase, fearing that they might be being lured into the midst of a greatly superior force, and had returned to Cuivaca.
It was nearly morning when Bridge and Billy threw themselves down upon the latter's blankets, fagged.
"Well, well," murmured Billy Byrne; "li'l ol' Bridgie's found his Penelope," and fell asleep.
CHAPTER XIII. BARBARA AGAIN
CAPTAIN BILLY BYRNE rode out of the hills the following afternoon upon a pinto pony that showed the whites of its eyes in a wicked rim about the iris and kept its ears perpetually flattened backward.
At the end of a lariat trailed the Brazos pony, for Billy, laughing aside Bridge's pleas, was on his way to El Orobo Rancho to return the stolen horse to its fair owner.
At the moment of departure Pesita had asked Billy to ride by way of Jose's to instruct the old Indian that he should bear word to one Esteban that Pesita required his presence.
It is a long ride from the retreat of the Pesitistas to Jose's squalid hut, especially if one be leading an extra horse, and so it was that darkness had fallen long before Billy arrived in sight of Jose's. Dismounting some distance from the hut, Billy approached cautiously, since the world is filled with dangers for those who are beyond the law, and one may not be too careful.
Billy could see a light showing through a small window, and toward this he made his way. A short distance from Jose's is another, larger structure from which the former inhabitants had fled the wrath of Pesita. It was dark and apparently tenantless; but as a matter of fact a pair of eyes chanced at the very moment of Billy's coming to be looking out through the open doorway.
The owner turned and spoke to someone behind him.
"Jose has another visitor," he said. "Possibly this one is less harmless than the other. He comes with great caution. Let us investigate."
Three other men rose from their blankets upon the floor and joined the speaker. They were all armed, and clothed in the nondescript uniforms of Villistas. Billy's back was toward them as they sneaked from the hut in which they were intending to spend the night and crept quietly toward him.
Billy was busily engaged in peering through the little window into the interior of the old Indian's hovel. He saw an American in earnest conversation with Jose. Who could the man be? Billy did not recognize him; but presently Jose answered the question.
"It shall be done as you wish, Senor Grayson," he said.
"Ah!" thought Billy; "the foreman of El Orobo. I wonder what business he has with this old scoundrel—and at night."
What other thoughts Billy might have had upon the subject were rudely interrupted by four energetic gentlemen in his rear, who leaped upon him simultaneously and dragged him to the ground. Billy made no outcry; but he fought none the less strenuously for his freedom, and he fought after the manner of Grand Avenue, which is not a pretty, however effective, way it may be.
But four against one when all the advantages lie with the four are heavy odds, and when Grayson and Jose ran out to investigate, and the ranch foreman added his weight to that of the others Billy was finally subdued. That each of his antagonists would carry mementos of the battle for many days was slight compensation for the loss of liberty. However, it was some.
After disarming their captive and tying his hands at his back they jerked him to his feet and examined him.
"Who are you?" asked Grayson. "What you doin' sneakin' 'round spyin' on me, eh?"
"If you wanna know who I am, bo," replied Billy, "go ask de Harlem Hurricane, an' as fer spyin' on youse, I wasn't; but from de looks I guess youse need spyin, yuh tinhorn."
A pony whinnied a short distance from the hut.
"That must be his horse," said one of the Villistas, and walked away to investigate, returning shortly after with the pinto pony and Brazos.
The moment Grayson saw the latter he gave an exclamation of understanding.
"I know him now," he said. "You've made a good catch, Sergeant. This is the fellow who robbed the bank at Cuivaca. I recognize him from the descriptions I've had of him, and the fact that he's got the Brazos pony makes it a cinch. Villa oughter promote you for this."
"Yep," interjected Billy, "he orter make youse an admiral at least; but youse ain't got me home yet, an' it'll take more'n four Dagos an' a tin-horn to do it."
"They'll get you there all right, my friend," Grayson assured him. "Now come along."
They bundled Billy into his own saddle, and shortly after the little party was winding southward along the river in the direction of El Orobo Rancho, with the intention of putting up there for the balance of the night where their prisoner could be properly secured and guarded. As they rode away from the dilapidated hut of the Indian the old man stood silhouetted against the rectangle of dim light which marked the open doorway, and shook his fist at the back of the departing ranch foreman.
"El cochino!" he cackled, and turned back into his hut.
At El Orobo Rancho Barbara walked to and fro outside the ranchhouse. Within her father sat reading beneath the rays of an oil lamp. From the quarters of the men came the strains of guitar music, and an occasional loud laugh indicated the climax of some of Eddie Shorter's famous Kansas farmer stories.
Barbara was upon the point of returning indoors when her attention was attracted by the approach of a half-dozen horsemen. They reined into the ranchyard and dismounted before the office building. Wondering a little who came so late, Barbara entered the house, mentioning casually to her father that which she had just seen.
The ranch owner, now always fearful of attack, was upon the point of investigating when Grayson rode up to the veranda and dismounted. Barbara and her father were at the door as he ascended the steps.
"Good news!" exclaimed the foreman. "I've got the bank robber, and Brazos, too. Caught the sneakin' coyote up to—up the river a bit." He had almost said "Jose's;" but caught himself in time. "Someone's been cuttin' the wire at the north side of the north pasture, an' I was ridin' up to see ef I could catch 'em at it," he explained.
"He is an American?" asked the boss.
"Looks like it; but he's got the heart of a greaser," replied Grayson. "Some of Villa's men are with me, and they're a-goin' to take him to Cuivaca tomorrow."
Neither Barbara nor her father seemed to enthuse much. To them an American was an American here in Mexico, where every hand was against their race. That at home they might have looked with disgust upon this same man did not alter their attitude here, that no American should take sides against his own people. Barbara said as much to Grayson.
"Why this fellow's one of Pesita's officers," exclaimed Grayson. "He don't deserve no sympathy from us nor from no other Americans. Pesita has sworn to kill every American that falls into his hands, and this fellow's with him to help him do it. He's a bad un."
"I can't help what he may do," insisted Barbara. "He's an American, and I for one would never be a party to his death at the hands of a Mexican, and it will mean death to him to be taken to Cuivaca."
"Well, miss," said Grayson, "you won't hev to be responsible—I'll take all the responsibility there is and welcome. I just thought you'd like to know we had him." He was addressing his employer. The latter nodded, and Grayson turned and left the room. Outside he cast a sneering laugh back over his shoulder and swung into his saddle.
In front of the men's quarters he drew rein again and shouted Eddie's name. Shorter came to the door.
"Get your six-shooter an' a rifle, an' come on over to the office. I want to see you a minute."
Eddie did as he was bid, and when he entered the little room he saw four Mexicans lolling about smoking cigarettes while Grayson stood before a chair in which sat a man with his arms tied behind his back. Grayson turned to Eddie.
"This party here is the slick un that robbed the bank, and got away on thet there Brazos pony thet miserable bookkeepin' dude giv him. The sergeant here an' his men are a-goin' to take him to Cuivaca in the mornin'. You stand guard over him 'til midnight, then they'll relieve you. They gotta get a little sleep first, though, an' I gotta get some supper. Don't stand fer no funny business now, Eddie," Grayson admonished him, and was on the point of leaving the office when a thought occurred to him. "Say, Shorter," he said, "they ain't no way of gettin' out of the little bedroom in back there except through this room. The windows are too small fer a big man to get through. I'll tell you what, we'll lock him up in there an' then you won't hev to worry none an' neither will we. You can jest spread out them Navajos there and go to sleep right plump ag'in the door, an' there won't nobody hev to relieve you all night."
"Sure," said Eddie, "leave it to me—I'll watch the slicker."
Satisfied that their prisoner was safe for the night the Villistas and Grayson departed, after seeing him safely locked in the back room.
At the mention by the foreman of his guard's names—Eddie and Shorter—Billy had studied the face of the young American cowpuncher, for the two names had aroused within his memory a tantalizing suggestion that they should be very familiar. Yet he could connect them in no way with anyone he had known in the past and he was quite sure that he never before had set eyes upon this man.
Sitting in the dark with nothing to occupy him Billy let his mind dwell upon the identity of his jailer, until, as may have happened to you, nothing in the whole world seemed equally as important as the solution of the mystery. Even his impending fate faded into nothingness by comparison with the momentous question as to where he had heard the name Eddie Shorter before.
As he sat puzzling his brain over the inconsequential matter something stirred upon the floor close to his feet, and presently he jerked back a booted foot that a rat had commenced to gnaw upon.
"Helluva place to stick a guy," mused Billy, "in wit a bunch o' man-eatin' rats. Hey!" and he turned his face toward the door. "You, Eddie! Come here!"
Eddie approached the door and listened.
"Wot do you want?" he asked. "None o' your funny business, you know. I'm from Shawnee, Kansas, I am, an' they don't come no slicker from nowhere on earth. You can't fool me."
Shawnee, Kansas! Eddie Shorter! The whole puzzle was cleared in Billy's mind in an instant.
"So you're Eddie Shorter of Shawnee, Kansas, are you?" called Billy. "Well I know your maw, Eddie, an' ef I had such a maw as you got I wouldn't be down here wastin' my time workin' alongside a lot of Dagos; but that ain't what I started out to say, which was that I want a light in here. The damned rats are tryin' to chaw off me kicks an' when they're done wit them they'll climb up after me an' old man Villa'll be sore as a pup."
"You know my maw?" asked Eddie, and there was a wistful note in his voice. "Aw shucks! you don't know her—that's jest some o' your funny, slicker business. You wanna git me in there an' then you'll try an' git aroun' me some sort o' way to let you escape; but I'm too slick for that."
"On the level Eddie, I know your maw," persisted Billy. "I ben in your maw's house jest a few weeks ago. 'Member the horsehair sofa between the windows? 'Member the Bible on the little marble-topped table? Eh? An' Tige? Well, Tige's croaked; but your maw an' your paw ain't an' they want you back, Eddie. I don't care ef you believe me, son, or not; but your maw was mighty good to me, an' you promise me you'll write her an' then go back home as fast as you can. It ain't everybody's got a swell maw like that, an' them as has ought to be good to 'em."
Beyond the closed door Eddie's jaw was commencing to tremble. Memory was flooding his heart and his eyes with sweet recollections of an ample breast where he used to pillow his head, of a big capable hand that was wont to smooth his brow and stroke back his red hair. Eddie gulped.
"You ain't joshin' me?" he asked. Billy Byrne caught the tremor in the voice.
"I ain't kiddin' you son," he said. "Wotinell do you take me fer—one o' these greasy Dagos? You an' I're Americans—I wouldn't string a home guy down here in this here Godforsaken neck o' the woods."
Billy heard the lock turn, and a moment later the door was cautiously opened revealing Eddie safely ensconced behind two six-shooters.
"That's right, Eddie," said Billy, with a laugh. "Don't you take no chances, no matter how much sob stuff I hand you, fer, I'll give it to you straight, ef I get the chanct I'll make my get-away; but I can't do it wit my flippers trussed, an' you wit a brace of gats sittin' on me. Let's have a light, Eddie. That won't do nobody any harm, an' it may discourage the rats."
Eddie backed across the office to a table where stood a small lamp. Keeping an eye through the door on his prisoner he lighted the lamp and carried it into the back room, setting it upon a commode which stood in one corner.
"You really seen maw?" he asked. "Is she well?"
"Looked well when I seen her," said Billy; "but she wants her boy back a whole lot. I guess she'd look better still ef he walked in on her some day."
"I'll do it," cried Eddie. "The minute they get money for the pay I'll hike. Tell me your name. I'll ask her ef she remembers you when I get home. Gee! but I wish I was walkin' in the front door now."
"She never knew my name," said Billy; "but you tell her you seen the bo that mussed up the two yeggmen who rolled her an' were tryin' to croak her wit a butcher knife. I guess she ain't fergot. Me an' my pal were beatin' it—he was on the square but the dicks was after me an' she let us have money to make our get-away. She's all right, kid."
There came a knock at the outer office door. Eddie sprang back into the front room, closing and locking the door after him, just as Barbara entered.
"Eddie," she asked, "may I see the prisoner? I want to talk to him."
"You want to talk with a bank robber?" exclaimed Eddie. "Why you ain't crazy are you, Miss Barbara?"
"No, I'm not crazy; but I want to speak with him alone for just a moment, Eddie—please."
Eddie hesitated. He knew that Grayson would be angry if he let the boss's daughter into that back room alone with an outlaw and a robber, and the boss himself would probably be inclined to have Eddie drawn and quartered; but it was hard to refuse Miss Barbara anything.
"Where is he?" she asked.
Eddie jerked a thumb in the direction of the door. The key still was in the lock.
"Go to the window and look at the moon, Eddie," suggested the girl. "It's perfectly gorgeous tonight. Please, Eddie," as he still hesitated.
Eddie shook his head and moved slowly toward the window.
"There can't nobody refuse you nothin', miss," he said; "'specially when you got your heart set on it."
"That's a dear, Eddie," purred the girl, and moved swiftly across the room to the locked door.
As she turned the key in the lock she felt a little shiver of nervous excitement run through her. "What sort of man would he be—this hardened outlaw and robber—this renegade American who had cast his lot with the avowed enemies of his own people?" she wondered.
Only her desire to learn of Bridge's fate urged her to attempt so distasteful an interview; but she dared not ask another to put the question for her, since should her complicity in Bridge's escape—provided of course that he had escaped—become known to Villa the fate of the Americans at El Orobo would be definitely sealed.
She turned the knob and pushed the door open, slowly. A man was sitting in a chair in the center of the room. His back was toward her. He was a big man. His broad shoulders loomed immense above the back of the rude chair. A shock of black hair, rumpled and tousled, covered a well-shaped head.
At the sound of the door creaking upon its hinges he turned his face in her direction, and as his eyes met hers all four went wide in surprise and incredulity.
"Billy!" she cried.
"Barbara!—you?" and Billy rose to his feet, his bound hands struggling to be free.
The girl closed the door behind her and crossed to him.
"You robbed the bank, Billy?" she asked. "It was you, after the promises you made me to live straight always—for my sake?" Her voice trembled with emotion. The man could see that she suffered, and yet he felt his own anguish, too.
"But you are married," he said. "I saw it in the papers. What do you care, now, Barbara? I'm nothing to you."
"I'm not married, Billy," she cried. "I couldn't marry Mr. Mallory. I tried to make myself believe that I could; but at last I knew that I did not love him and never could, and I wouldn't marry a man I didn't love.
"I never dreamed that it was you here, Billy," she went on. "I came to ask you about Mr. Bridge. I wanted to know if he escaped, or if—if—oh, this awful country! They think no more of human life here than a butcher thinks of the life of the animal he dresses."
A sudden light illumined Billy's mind. Why had it not occurred to him before? This was Bridge's Penelope! The woman he loved was loved by his best friend. And she had sent a messenger to him, to Billy, to save her lover. She had come here to the office tonight to question a stranger—a man she thought an outlaw and a robber—because she could not rest without word from the man she loved. Billy stiffened. He was hurt to the bottom of his heart; but he did not blame Bridge—it was fate. Nor did he blame Barbara because she loved Bridge. Bridge was more her kind anyway. He was a college guy. Billy was only a mucker.
"Bridge got away all right," he said. "And say, he didn't have nothin' to do with pullin' off that safe crackin'. I done it myself. He didn't know I was in town an' I didn't know he was there. He's the squarest guy in the world, Bridge is. He follered me that night an' took a shot at me, thinkin' I was the robber all right but not knowin' I was me. He got my horse, an' when he found it was me, he made me take your pony an' make my get-away, fer he knew Villa's men would croak me sure if they caught me. You can't blame him fer that, can you? Him an' I were good pals—he couldn't do nothin' else. It was him that made me bring your pony back to you. It's in the corral now, I reckon. I was a-bringin' it back when they got me. Now you better go. This ain't no place fer you, an' I ain't had no sleep fer so long I'm most dead." His tones were cool. He appeared bored by her company; though as a matter of fact his heart was breaking with love for her—love that he believed unrequited—and he yearned to tear loose his bonds and crush her in his arms.
It was Barbara's turn now to be hurt. She drew herself up.
"I am sorry that I have disturbed your rest," she said, and walked away, her head in the air; but all the way back to the ranchhouse she kept repeating over and over to herself: "Tomorrow they will shoot him! Tomorrow they will shoot him! Tomorrow they will shoot him!"
CHAPTER XIV. 'TWIXT LOVE AND DUTY
FOR an hour Barbara Harding paced the veranda of the ranchhouse, pride and love battling for the ascendency within her breast. She could not let him die, that she knew; but how might she save him?
The strains of music and the laughter from the bunkhouse had ceased. The ranch slept. Over the brow of the low bluff upon the opposite side of the river a little party of silent horsemen filed downward to the ford. At the bluff's foot a barbed-wire fence marked the eastern boundary of the ranch's enclosed fields. The foremost horseman dismounted and cut the strands of wire, carrying them to one side from the path of the feet of the horses which now passed through the opening he had made.
Down into the river they rode following the ford even in the darkness with an assurance which indicated long familiarity. Then through a fringe of willows out across a meadow toward the ranch buildings the riders made their way. The manner of their approach, their utter silence, the hour, all contributed toward the sinister.
Upon the veranda of the ranchhouse Barbara Harding came to a sudden halt. Her entire manner indicated final decision, and determination. A moment she stood in thought and then ran quickly down the steps and in the direction of the office. Here she found Eddie dozing at his post. She did not disturb him. A glance through the window satisfied her that he was alone with the prisoner. From the office building Barbara passed on to the corral. A few horses stood within the enclosure, their heads drooping dejectedly. As she entered they raised their muzzles and sniffed suspiciously, ears a-cock, and as the girl approached closer to them they moved warily away, snorting, and passed around her to the opposite side of the corral. As they moved by her she scrutinized them and her heart dropped, for Brazos was not among them. He must have been turned out into the pasture.
She passed over to the bars that closed the opening from the corral into the pasture and wormed her way between two of them. A hackamore with a piece of halter rope attached to it hung across the upper bar. Taking it down she moved off across the pasture in the direction the saddle horses most often took when liberated from the corral.
If they had not crossed the river she felt that she might find and catch Brazos, for lumps of sugar and bits of bread had inspired in his equine soul a wondrous attachment for his temporary mistress.
Down the beaten trail the animals had made to the river the girl hurried, her eyes penetrating the darkness ahead and to either hand for the looming bulks that would be the horses she sought, and among which she might hope to discover the gentle little Brazos.
The nearer she came to the river the lower dropped her spirits, for as yet no sign of the animals was to be seen. To have attempted to place a hackamore upon any of the wild creatures in the corral would have been the height of foolishness—only a well-sped riata in the hands of a strong man could have captured one of these.
Closer and closer to the fringe of willows along the river she came, until, at their very edge, there broke upon her already taut nerves the hideous and uncanny scream of a wildcat. The girl stopped short in her tracks. She felt the chill of fear creep through her skin, and a twitching at the roots of her hair evidenced to her the extremity of her terror. Should she turn back? The horses might be between her and the river, but judgment told her that they had crossed. Should she brave the nervous fright of a passage through that dark, forbidding labyrinth of gloom when she knew that she should not find the horses within reach beyond?
She turned to retrace her steps. She must find another way!
But was there another way? And "Tomorrow they will shoot him!" She shuddered, bit her lower lip in an effort to command her courage, and then, wheeling, plunged into the thicket.
Again the cat screamed—close by—but the girl never hesitated in her advance, and a few moments later she broke through the willows a dozen paces from the river bank. Her eyes strained through the night; but no horses were to be seen.
The trail, cut by the hoofs of many animals, ran deep and straight down into the swirling water. Upon the opposite side Brazos must be feeding or resting, just beyond reach.
Barbara dug her nails into her palms in the bitterness of her disappointment. She followed down to the very edge of the water. It was black and forbidding. Even in the daytime she would not have been confident of following the ford—by night it would be madness to attempt it.
She choked down a sob. Her shoulders drooped. Her head bent forward. She was the picture of disappointment and despair.
"What can I do?" she moaned. "Tomorrow they will shoot him!"
The thought seemed to electrify her.
"They shall not shoot him!" she cried aloud. "They shall not shoot him while I live to prevent it!"
Again her head was up and her shoulders squared. Tying the hackamore about her waist, she took a single deep breath of reassurance and stepped out into the river. For a dozen paces she found no difficulty in following the ford. It was broad and straight; but toward the center of the river, as she felt her way along a step at a time, she came to a place where directly before her the ledge upon which she crossed shelved off into deep water. She turned upward, trying to locate the direction of the new turn; but here too there was no footing. Down river she felt solid rock beneath her feet. Ah! this was the way, and boldly she stepped out, the water already above her knees. Two, three steps she took, and with each one her confidence and hope arose, and then the fourth step—and there was no footing. She felt herself lunging into the stream, and tried to draw back and regain the ledge; but the force of the current was too much for her, and, so suddenly it seemed that she had thrown herself in, she was in the channel swimming for her life.
The trend of the current there was back in the direction of the bank she had but just quitted, yet so strong was her determination to succeed for Billy Byrne's sake that she turned her face toward the opposite shore and fought to reach the seemingly impossible goal which love had set for her. Again and again she was swept under by the force of the current. Again and again she rose and battled, not for her own life; but for the life of the man she once had loathed and whom she later had come to love. Inch by inch she won toward the shore of her desire, and inch by inch of her progress she felt her strength failing. Could she win? Ah! if she were but a man, and with the thought came another: Thank God that I am a woman with a woman's love which gives strength to drive me into the clutches of death for his sake!
Her heart thundered in tumultuous protest against the strain of her panting lungs. Her limbs felt cold and numb; but she could not give up even though she was now convinced that she had thrown her life away uselessly. They would find her body; but no one would ever guess what had driven her to her death. Not even he would know that it was for his sake. And then she felt the tugging of the channel current suddenly lessen, an eddy carried her gently inshore, her feet touched the sand and gravel of the bottom.
Gasping for breath, staggering, stumbling, she reeled on a few paces and then slipped down clutching at the river's bank. Here the water was shallow, and here she lay until her strength returned. Then she urged herself up and onward, climbed to the top of the bank with success at last within reach.
To find the horses now required but a few minutes' search. They stood huddled in a black mass close to the barbed-wire fence at the extremity of the pasture. As she approached them they commenced to separate slowly, edging away while they faced her in curiosity. Softly she called: "Brazos! Come, Brazos!" until a unit of the moving mass detached itself and came toward her, nickering.
"Good Brazos!" she cooed. "That's a good pony," and walked forward to meet him.
The animal let her reach up and stroke his forehead, while he muzzled about her for the expected tidbit. Gently she worked the hackamore over his nose and above his ears, and when it was safely in place she breathed a deep sigh of relief and throwing her arms about his neck pressed her cheek to his.
"You dear old Brazos," she whispered.
The horse stood quietly while the girl wriggled herself to his back, and then at a word and a touch from her heels moved off at a walk in the direction of the ford. The crossing this time was one of infinite ease, for Barbara let the rope lie loose and Brazos take his own way.
Through the willows upon the opposite bank he shouldered his path, across the meadow still at a walk, lest they arouse attention, and through a gate which led directly from the meadow into the ranchyard. Here she tied him to the outside of the corral, while she went in search of saddle and bridle. Whose she took she did not know, nor care, but that the saddle was enormously heavy she was perfectly aware long before she had dragged it halfway to where Brazos stood.
Three times she essayed to lift it to his back before she succeeded in accomplishing the Herculean task, and had it been any other horse upon the ranch than Brazos the thing could never have been done; but the kindly little pony stood in statuesque resignation while the heavy Mexican tree was banged and thumped against his legs and ribs, until a lucky swing carried it to his wethers.
Saddled and bridled Barbara led him to the rear of the building and thus, by a roundabout way, to the back of the office building. Here she could see a light in the room in which Billy was confined, and after dropping the bridle reins to the ground she made her way to the front of the structure.
Creeping stealthily to the porch she peered in at the window. Eddie was stretched out in cramped though seeming luxury in an office chair. His feet were cocked up on the desk before him. In his lap lay his six-shooter ready for any emergency. Another reposed in its holster at his belt.
Barbara tiptoed to the door. Holding her breath she turned the knob gently. The door swung open without a sound, and an instant later she stood within the room. Again her eyes were fixed upon Eddie Shorter. She saw his nerveless fingers relax their hold upon the grip of his revolver. She saw the weapon slip farther down into his lap. He did not move, other than to the deep and regular breathing of profound slumber.
Barbara crossed the room to his side.
Behind the ranchhouse three figures crept forward in the shadows. Behind them a matter of a hundred yards stood a little clump of horses and with them were the figures of more men. These waited in silence. The other three crept toward the house. It was such a ranchhouse as you might find by the scores or hundreds throughout Texas. Grayson, evidently, or some other Texan, had designed it. There was nothing Mexican about it, nor anything beautiful. It stood two storied, verandaed and hideous, a blot upon the soil of picturesque Mexico.
To the roof of the veranda clambered the three prowlers, and across it to an open window. The window belonged to the bedroom of Miss Barbara Harding. Here they paused and listened, then two of them entered the room. They were gone for but a few minutes. When they emerged they showed evidences, by their gestures to the third man who had awaited outside, of disgust and disappointment.
Cautiously they descended as they had come and made their way back to those other men who had remained with the horses. Here there ensued a low-toned conference, and while it progressed Barbara Harding reached forth a steady hand which belied the terror in her soul and plucked the revolver from Eddie Shorter's lap. Eddie slept on.
Again on tiptoe the girl recrossed the office to the locked door leading into the back room. The key was in the lock. Gingerly she turned it, keeping a furtive eye upon the sleeping guard, and the muzzle of his own revolver leveled menacingly upon him. Eddie Shorter stirred in his sleep and raised a hand to his face. The heart of Barbara Harding ceased to beat while she stood waiting for the man to open his eyes and discover her; but he did nothing of the kind. Instead his hand dropped limply at his side and he resumed his regular breathing.
The key turned in the lock beneath the gentle pressure of her fingers, the bolt slipped quietly back and she pushed the door ajar. Within, Billy Byrne turned inquiring eyes in the direction of the opening door, and as he saw who it was who entered surprise showed upon his face; but he spoke no word for the girl held a silencing finger to her lips.
Quickly she came to his side and motioned him to rise while she tugged at the knots which held the bonds in place about his arms. Once she stopped long enough to recross the room and close the door which she had left open when she entered.
It required fully five minutes—the longest five minutes of Barbara Harding's life, she thought—before the knots gave to her efforts; but at last the rope fell to the floor and Billy Byrne was free.
He started to speak, to thank her, and, perhaps, to scold her for the rash thing she had undertaken for him; but she silenced him again, and with a whispered, "Come!" turned toward the door.
As she opened it a crack to reconnoiter she kept the revolver pointed straight ahead of her into the adjoining room. Eddie, however, still slept on in peaceful ignorance of the trick which was being played upon him.
Now the two started forward for the door which opened from the office upon the porch, and as they did so Barbara turned again toward Billy to caution him to silence for his spurs had tinkled as he moved. For a moment their eyes were not upon Eddie Shorter and Fate had it that at that very moment Eddie awoke and opened his own eyes.
The sight that met them was so astonishing that for a second the Kansan could not move. He saw Barbara Harding, a revolver in her hand, aiding the outlaw to escape, and in the instant that surprise kept him motionless Eddie saw, too, another picture—the picture of a motherly woman in a little farmhouse back in Kansas, and Eddie realized that this man, this outlaw, had been the means of arousing within him a desire and a determination to return again to those loving arms. Too, the man had saved his mother from injury, and possible death.
Eddie shut his eyes quickly and thought hard and fast. Miss Barbara had always been kind to him. In his boyish heart he had loved her, hopelessly of course, in a boyish way. She wanted the outlaw to escape. Eddie realized that he would do anything that Miss Barbara wanted, even if he had to risk his life at it.
The girl and the man were at the door. She pushed him through ahead of her while she kept the revolver leveled upon Eddie, then she passed out after him and closed the door, while Eddie Shorter kept his eyes tightly closed and prayed to his God that Billy Byrne might get safely away.
Outside and in the rear of the office building Barbara pressed the revolver upon Billy.
"You will need it," she said. "There is Brazos—take him. God bless and guard you, Billy!" and she was gone.
Billy swallowed bard. He wanted to run after her and take her in his arms; but he recalled Bridge, and with a sigh turned toward the patient Brazos. Languidly he gathered up the reins and mounted, and then unconcernedly as though he were an honored guest departing by daylight he rode out of the ranchyard and turned Brazos' head north up the river road.
And as Billy disappeared in the darkness toward the north Barbara Harding walked slowly toward the ranchhouse, while from a little group of men and horses a hundred yards away three men detached themselves and crept toward her, for they had seen her in the moonlight as she left Billy outside the office and strolled slowly in the direction of the house.
They hid in the shadow at the side of the house until the girl had turned the corner and was approaching the veranda, then they ran quickly forward and as she mounted the steps she was seized from behind and dragged backward. A hand was clapped over her mouth and a whispered threat warned her to silence.
Half dragging and half carrying her the three men bore her back to where their confederates awaited them. A huge fellow mounted his pony and Barbara was lifted to the horn of the saddle before him. Then the others mounted and as silently as they had come they rode away, following the same path.
Barbara Harding had not cried out nor attempted to, for she had seen very shortly after her capture that she was in the hands of Indians and she judged from what she had heard of the little band of Pimans who held forth in the mountains to the east that they would as gladly knife her as not.
Jose was a Piman, and she immediately connected Jose with the perpetration, or at least the planning of her abduction. Thus she felt assured that no harm would come to her, since Jose had been famous in his time for the number and size of the ransoms he had collected.
Her father would pay what was demanded, she would be returned and, aside from a few days of discomfort and hardship, she would be none the worse off for her experience. Reasoning thus it was not difficult to maintain her composure and presence of mind.
As Barbara was borne toward the east, Billy Byrne rode steadily northward. It was his intention to stop at Jose's hut and deliver the message which Pesita had given him for the old Indian. Then he would disappear into the mountains to the west, join Pesita and urge a new raid upon some favored friend of General Francisco Villa, for Billy had no love for Villa.
He should have been glad to pay his respects to El Orobo Rancho and its foreman; but the fact that Anthony Harding owned it and that he and Barbara were there was sufficient effectually to banish all thoughts of revenge along that line.
"Maybe I can get his goat later," he thought, "when he's away from the ranch. I don't like that stiff, anyhow. He orter been a harness bull."
It was four o'clock in the morning when Billy dismounted in front of Jose's hut. He pounded on the door until the man came and opened it.
"Eh!" exclaimed Jose as he saw who his early morning visitor was, "you got away from them. Fine!" and the old man chuckled. "I send word to Pesita two, four hours ago that Villistas capture Capitan Byrne and take him to Cuivaca."
"Thanks," said Billy. "Pesita wants you to send Esteban to him. I didn't have no chance to tell you last night while them pikers was stickin' aroun', so I stops now on my way back to the hills."
"I will send Esteban tonight if I can get him; but I do not know. Esteban is working for the pig, Grayson."
"Wot's he doin' fer Grayson?" asked Billy. "And what was the Grayson guy doin' up here with you, Jose? Ain't you gettin' pretty thick with Pesita's enemies?"
"Jose good friends everybody," and the old man grinned. "Grayson have a job he want good men for. Jose furnish men. Grayson pay well. Job got nothin' do Pesita, Villa, Carranza, revolution—just private job. Grayson want senorita. He pay to get her. That all."
"Oh," said Billy, and yawned. He was not interested in Mr. Grayson's amours. "Why didn't the poor boob go get her himself?" he inquired disinterestedly. "He must be a yap to hire a bunch o' guys to go cop off a siwash girl fer him."
"It is not a siwash girl, Senor Capitan," said Jose. "It is one beautiful senorita—the daughter of the owner of El Orobo Rancho."
"What?" cried Billy Byrne. "What's that you say?"
"Yes, Senor Capitan, what of it?" inquired Jose. "Grayson he pay me furnish the men. Esteban he go with his warriors. I get Esteban. They go tonight take away the senorita; but not for Grayson," and the old fellow laughed. "I can no help can I? Grayson pay me money get men. I get them. I no help if they keep girl," and he shrugged.
"They're comin' for her tonight?" cried Billy.
"Si, senor," replied Jose. "Doubtless they already take her."
"Hell!" muttered Billy Byrne, as he swung Brazos about so quickly that the little pony pivoted upon his hind legs and dashed away toward the south over the same trail he had just traversed.
CHAPTER XV. AN INDIAN'S TREACHERY
THE Brazos pony had traveled far that day but for only a trifle over ten miles had he carried a rider upon his back. He was, consequently, far from fagged as he leaped forward to the lifted reins and tore along the dusty river trail back in the direction of Orobo.
Never before had Brazos covered ten miles in so short a time, for it was not yet five o'clock when, reeling with fatigue, he stopped, staggered and fell in front of the office building at El Orobo.
Eddie Shorter had sat in the chair as Barbara and Billy had last seen him waiting until Byrne should have an ample start before arousing Grayson and reporting the prisoner's escape. Eddie had determined that he would give Billy an hour. He grinned as he anticipated the rage of Grayson and the Villistas when they learned that their bird had flown, and as he mused and waited he fell asleep.
It was broad daylight when Eddie awoke, and as he looked up at the little clock ticking against the wall, and saw the time he gave an exclamation of surprise and leaped to his feet. Just as he opened the outer door of the office he saw a horseman leap from a winded pony in front of the building. He saw the animal collapse and sink to the ground, and then he recognized the pony as Brazos, and another glance at the man brought recognition of him, too.
"You?" cried Eddie. "What are you doin' back here? I gotta take you now," and he started to draw his revolver; but Billy Byrne had him covered before ever his hand reached the grip of his gun.
"Put 'em up!" admonished Billy, "and listen to me. This ain't no time fer gunplay or no such foolishness. I ain't back here to be took—get that out o' your nut. I'm tipped off that a bunch o' siwashes was down here last night to swipe Miss Harding. Come! We gotta go see if she's here or not, an' don't try any funny business on me, Eddie. I ain't a-goin' to be taken again, an' whoever tries it gets his, see?"
Eddie was down off the porch in an instant, and making for the ranchhouse.
"I'm with you," he said. "Who told you? And who done it?"
"Never mind who told me; but a siwash named Esteban was to pull the thing off for Grayson. Grayson wanted Miss Harding an' he was goin' to have her stolen for him."
"The hound!" muttered Eddie.
The two men dashed up onto the veranda of the ranchhouse and pounded at the door until a Chinaman opened it and stuck out his head, inquiringly.
"Is Miss Harding here?" demanded Billy.
"Mlissy Hardie Kleep," snapped the servant. "Wally wanee here flo blekfas?", and would have shut the door in their faces had not Billy intruded a heavy boot. The next instant he placed a large palm over the celestial's face and pushed the man back into the house. Once inside he called Mr. Harding's name aloud.
"What is it?" asked the gentleman a moment later as he appeared in a bedroom doorway off the living-room clad in his pajamas. "What's the matter? Why, gad man, is that you? Is this really Billy Byrne?"
"Sure," replied Byrne shortly; "but we can't waste any time chinnin'. I heard that Miss Barbara was goin' to be swiped last night—I heard that she had been. Now hurry and see if she is here."
Anthony Harding turned and leaped up the narrow stairway to the second floor four steps at a time. He hadn't gone upstairs in that fashion in forty years. Without even pausing to rap he burst into his daughter's bedroom. It was empty. The bed was unruffled. It had not been slept in. With a moan the man turned back and ran hastily to the other rooms upon the second floor—Barbara was nowhere to be found. Then he hastened downstairs to the two men awaiting him.
As he entered the room from one end Grayson entered it from the other through the doorway leading out upon the veranda. Billy Byrne had heard footsteps upon the boards without and he was ready, so that as Grayson entered he found himself looking straight at the business end of a sixshooter. The foreman halted, and stood looking in surprise first at Billy Byrne, and then at Eddie Shorter and Mr. Harding.
"What does this mean?" he demanded, addressing Eddie. "What you doin' here with your prisoner? Who told you to let him out, eh?"
"Can the chatter," growled Billy Byrne. "Shorter didn't let me out. I escaped hours ago, and I've just come back from Jose's to ask you where Miss Harding is, you low-lived cur, you. Where is she?"
"What has Mr. Grayson to do with it?" asked Mr. Harding. "How should he know anything about it? It's all a mystery to me—you here, of all men in the world, and Grayson talking about you as the prisoner. I can't make it out. Quick, though, Byrne, tell me all you know about Barbara."
Billy kept Grayson covered as he replied to the request of Harding.
"This guy hires a bunch of Pimans to steal Miss Barbara," he said. "I got it straight from the fellow he paid the money to for gettin' him the right men to pull off the job. He wants her it seems," and Billy shot a look at the ranch foreman that would have killed if looks could. "She can't have been gone long. I seen her after midnight, just before I made my getaway, so they can't have taken her very far. This thing here can't help us none neither, for he don't know where she is any more'n we do. He thinks he does; but he don't. The siwashes framed it on him, an' they've doubled-crossed him. I got that straight too; but, Gawd! I don't know where they've taken her or what they're goin' to do with her."
As he spoke he turned his eyes for the first time away from Grayson and looked full in Anthony Harding's face. The latter saw beneath the strong character lines of the other's countenance the agony of fear and doubt that lay heavy upon his heart.
In the brief instant that Billy's watchful gaze left the figure of the ranch foreman the latter saw the opportunity he craved. He was standing directly in the doorway—a single step would carry him out of range of Byrne's gun, placing a wall between it and him, and Grayson was not slow in taking that step.
When Billy turned his eyes back the Texan had disappeared, and by the time the former reached the doorway Grayson was halfway to the office building on the veranda of which stood the four soldiers of Villa grumbling and muttering over the absence of their prisoner of the previous evening.
Billy Byrne stepped out into the open. The ranch foreman called aloud to the four Mexicans that their prisoner was at the ranchhouse and as they looked in that direction they saw him, revolver in hand, coming slowly toward them. There was a smile upon his lips which they could not see because of the distance, and which, not knowing Billy Byrne, they would not have interpreted correctly; but the revolver they did understand, and at sight of it one of them threw his carbine to his shoulder. His finger, however, never closed upon the trigger, for there came the sound of a shot from beyond Billy Byrne and the Mexican staggered forward, pitching over the edge of the porch to the ground.
Billy turned his head in the direction from which the shot had come and saw Eddie Shorter running toward him, a smoking six-shooter in his right hand.
"Go back," commanded Byrne; "this is my funeral."
"Not on your life," replied Eddie Shorter. "Those greasers don't take no white man off'n El Orobo, while I'm here. Get busy! They're comin'."
And sure enough they were coming, and as they came their carbines popped and the bullets whizzed about the heads of the two Americans. Grayson, too, had taken a hand upon the side of the Villistas. From the bunkhouse other men were running rapidly in the direction of the fight, attracted by the first shots.
Billy and Eddie stood their ground, a few paces apart. Two more of Villa's men went down. Grayson ran for cover. Then Billy Byrne dropped the last of the Mexicans just as the men from the bunkhouse came panting upon the scene. There were both Americans and Mexicans among them. All were armed and weapons were ready in their hands.
They paused a short distance from the two men. Eddie's presence upon the side of the stranger saved Billy from instant death, for Eddie was well liked by both his Mexican and American fellow-workers.
"What's the fuss?" asked an American.
Eddie told them, and when they learned that the boss's daughter had been spirited away and that the ranch foreman was at the bottom of it the anger of the Americans rose to a dangerous pitch.
"Where is he?" someone asked. They were gathered in a little cluster now about Billy Byrne and Shorter.
"I saw him duck behind the office building," said Eddie.
"Come on," said another. "We'll get him."
"Someone get a rope." The men spoke in low, ordinary tones—they appeared unexcited. Determination was the most apparent characteristic of the group. One of them ran back toward the bunkhouse for his rope. The others walked slowly in the direction of the rear of the office building. Grayson was not there. The search proceeded. The Americans were in advance. The Mexicans kept in a group by themselves a little in rear of the others—it was not their trouble. If the gringos wanted to lynch another gringo, well and good—that was the gringos' business. They would keep out of it, and they did.
Down past the bunkhouse and the cookhouse to the stables the searchers made their way. Grayson could not be found. In the stables one of the men made a discovery—the foreman's saddle had vanished. Out in the corrals they went. One of the men laughed—the bars were down and the saddle horses gone. Eddie Shorter presently pointed out across the pasture and the river to the skyline of the low bluffs beyond. The others looked. A horseman was just visible urging his mount upward to the crest, the two stood in silhouette against the morning sky pink with the new sun.
"That's him," said Eddie.
"Let him go," said Billy Byrne. "He won't never come back and he ain't worth chasin'. Not while we got Miss Barbara to look after. My horse is down there with yours. I'm goin' down to get him. Will you come, Shorter? I may need help—I ain't much with a rope yet."
He started off without waiting for a reply, and all the Americans followed. Together they circled the horses and drove them back to the corral. When Billy had saddled and mounted he saw that the others had done likewise.
"We're goin' with you," said one of the men. "Miss Barbara b'longs to us."
Billy nodded and moved off in the direction of the ranchhouse. Here he dismounted and with Eddie Shorter and Mr. Harding commenced circling the house in search of some manner of clue to the direction taken by the abductors. It was not long before they came upon the spot where the Indians' horses had stood the night before. From there the trail led plainly down toward the river. In a moment ten Americans were following it, after Mr. Harding had supplied Billy Byrne with a carbine, another six-shooter, and ammunition.
Through the river and the cut in the barbed-wire fence, then up the face of the bluff and out across the low mesa beyond the trail led. For a mile it was distinct, and then disappeared as though the riders had separated.
"Well," said Billy, as the others drew around him for consultation, "they'd be goin' to the hills there. They was Pimans—Esteban's tribe. They got her up there in the hills somewheres. Let's split up an' search the hills for her. Whoever comes on 'em first'll have to do some shootin' and the rest of us can close in an' help. We can go in pairs—then if one's killed the other can ride out an' lead the way back to where it happened."
The men seemed satisfied with the plan and broke up into parties of two. Eddie Shorter paired off with Billy Byrne.
"Spread out," said the latter to his companions. "Eddie an' I'll ride straight ahead—the rest of you can fan out a few miles on either side of us. S'long an' good luck," and he started off toward the hills, Eddie Shorter at his side.
Back at the ranch the Mexican vaqueros lounged about, grumbling. With no foreman there was nothing to do except talk about their troubles. They had not been paid since the looting of the bank at Cuivaca, for Mr. Harding had been unable to get any silver from elsewhere until a few days since. He now had assurances that it was on the way to him; but whether or not it would reach El Orobo was a question.
"Why should we stay here when we are not paid?" asked one of them.
"Yes, why?" chorused several others.
"There is nothing to do here," said another. "We will go to Cuivaca. I, for one, am tired of working for the gringos."
This met with the unqualified approval of all, and a few moments later the men had saddled their ponies and were galloping away in the direction of sun-baked Cuivaca. They sang now, and were happy, for they were as little boys playing hooky from school—not bad men; but rather irresponsible children.
Once in Cuivaca they swooped down upon the drinking-place, where, with what little money a few of them had left they proceeded to get drunk.
Later in the day an old, dried-up Indian entered. He was hot and dusty from a long ride.
"Hey, Jose!" cried one of the vaqueros from El Orobo Rancho; "you old rascal, what are you doing here?"
Jose looked around upon them. He knew them all—they represented the Mexican contingent of the riders of El Orobo. Jose wondered what they were all doing here in Cuivaca at one time. Even upon a pay day it never had been the rule of El Orobo to allow more than four men at a time to come to town.
"Oh, Jose come to buy coffee and tobacco," he replied. He looked about searchingly. "Where are the others?" he asked, "—the gringos?"
"They have ridden after Esteban," explained one of the vaqueros. "He has run off with Senorita Harding."
Jose raised his eyebrows as though this was all news.
"And Senor Grayson has gone with them?" he asked. "He was very fond of the senorita."
"Senor Grayson has run away," went on the other speaker. "The other gringos wished to hang him, for it is said he has bribed Esteban to do this thing."
Again Jose raised his eyebrows. "Impossible!" he ejaculated. "And who then guards the ranch?" he asked presently.
"Senor Harding, two Mexican house servants, and a Chinaman," and the vaquero laughed.
"I must be going," Jose announced after a moment. "It is a long ride for an old man from my poor home to Cuivaca, and back again."
The vaqueros were paying no further attention to him, and the Indian passed out and sought his pony; but when he had mounted and ridden from town he took a strange direction for one whose path lies to the east, since he turned his pony's head toward the northwest.
Jose had ridden far that day, since Billy had left his humble hut. He had gone to the west to the little rancho of one of Pesita's adherents who had dispatched a boy to carry word to the bandit that his Captain Byrne had escaped the Villistas, and then Jose had ridden into Cuivaca by a circuitous route which brought him up from the east side of the town.
Now he was riding once again for Pesita; but this time he would bear the information himself. He found the chief in camp and after begging tobacco and a cigarette paper the Indian finally reached the purpose of his visit.
"Jose has just come from Cuivaca," he said, "and there he drank with all the Mexican vaqueros of El Orobo Rancho—ALL, my general, you understand. It seems that Esteban has carried off the beautiful senorita of El Orobo Rancho, and the vaqueros tell Jose that ALL the American vaqueros have ridden in search of her—ALL, my general, you understand. In such times of danger it is odd that the gringos should leave El Orobo thus unguarded. Only the rich Senor Harding, two house servants, and a Chinaman remain."
A man lay stretched upon his blankets in a tent next to that occupied by Pesita. At the sound of the speaker's voice, low though it was, he raised his head and listened. He heard every word, and a scowl settled upon his brow. Barbara stolen! Mr Harding practically alone upon the ranch! And Pesita in possession of this information!
Bridge rose to his feet. He buckled his cartridge belt about his waist and picked up his carbine, then he crawled under the rear wall of his tent and walked slowly off in the direction of the picket line where the horses were tethered.
"Ah, Senor Bridge," said a pleasant voice in his ear; "where to?"
Bridge turned quickly to look into the smiling, evil face of Rozales.
"Oh," he replied, "I'm going out to see if I can't find some shooting. It's awfully dull sitting around here doing nothing."
"Si, senor," agreed Rozales; "I, too, find it so. Let us go together—I know where the shooting is best."
"I don't doubt it," thought Bridge; "probably in the back;" but aloud he said: "Certainly, that will be fine," for he guessed that Rozales had been set to watch his movements and prevent his escape, and, perchance, to be the sole witness of some unhappy event which should carry Senor Bridge to the arms of his fathers.
Rozales called a soldier to saddle and bridle their horses and shortly after the two were riding abreast down the trail out of the hills. Where it was necessary that they ride in single file Bridge was careful to see that Rozales rode ahead, and the Mexican graciously permitted the American to fall behind.
If he was inspired by any other motive than simple espionage he was evidently content to bide his time until chance gave him the opening he desired, and it was equally evident that he felt as safe in front of the American as behind him.
At a point where a ravine down which they had ridden debauched upon a mesa Rozales suggested that they ride to the north, which was not at all the direction in which Bridge intended going. The American demurred.
"But there is no shooting down in the valley," urged Rozales.
"I think there will be," was Bridge's enigmatical reply, and then, with a sudden exclamation of surprise he pointed over Rozales' shoulder. "What's that?" he cried in a voice tense with excitement.
The Mexican turned his head quickly in the direction Bridge's index finger indicated.
"I see nothing," said Rozales, after a moment.
"You do now, though," replied Bridge, and as the Mexican's eyes returned in the direction of his companion he was forced to admit that he did see something—the dismal, hollow eye of a six-shooter looking him straight in the face.
"Senor Bridge!" exclaimed Rozales. "What are you doing? What do you mean?"
"I mean," said Bridge, "that if you are at all solicitous of your health you'll climb down off that pony, not forgetting to keep your hands above your head when you reach the ground. Now climb!"
"Turn your back toward me," commanded the American, and when the other had obeyed him, Bridge dismounted and removed the man's weapons from his belt. "Now you may go, Rozales," he said, "and should you ever have an American in your power again remember that I spared your life when I might easily have taken it—when it would have been infinitely safer for me to have done it."
The Mexican made no reply, but the black scowl that clouded his face boded ill for the next gringo who should be so unfortunate as to fall into his hands. Slowly he wheeled about and started back up the trail in the direction of the Pesita camp.
"I'll be halfway to El Orobo," thought Bridge, "before he gets a chance to tell Pesita what happened to him," and then he remounted and rode on down into the valley, leading Rozales' horse behind him.
It would never do, he knew, to turn the animal loose too soon, since he would doubtless make his way back to camp, and in doing so would have to pass Rozales who would catch him. Time was what Bridge wanted—to be well on his way to Orobo before Pesita should learn of his escape.
Bridge knew nothing of what had happened to Billy, for Pesita had seen to it that the information was kept from the American. The latter had, nevertheless, been worrying not a little at the absence of his friend for he knew that he had taken his liberty and his life in his hands in riding down to El Orobo among avowed enemies.
Far to his rear Rozales plodded sullenly up the steep trail through the mountains, revolving in his mind various exquisite tortures he should be delighted to inflict upon the next gringo who came into his power.
CHAPTER XVI. EDDIE MAKES GOOD
BILLY BYRNE and Eddie Shorter rode steadily in the direction of the hills. Upon either side and at intervals of a mile or more stretched the others of their party, occasionally visible; but for the most part not. Once in the hills the two could no longer see their friends or be seen by them.
Both Byrne and Eddie felt that chance had placed them upon the right trail for a well-marked and long-used path wound upward through a canyon along which they rode. It was an excellent location for an ambush, and both men breathed more freely when they had passed out of it into more open country upon a narrow tableland between the first foothills and the main range of mountains.
Here again was the trail well marked, and when Eddie, looking ahead, saw that it appeared to lead in the direction of a vivid green spot close to the base of the gray brown hills he gave an exclamation of assurance.
"We're on the right trail all right, old man," he said. "They's water there," and he pointed ahead at the green splotch upon the gray. "That's where they'd be havin' their village. I ain't never been up here so I ain't familiar with the country. You see we don't run no cattle this side the river—the Pimans won't let us. They don't care to have no white men pokin' round in their country; but I'll bet a hat we find a camp there."
Onward they rode toward the little spot of green. Sometimes it was in sight and again as they approached higher ground, or wound through gullies and ravines it was lost to their sight; but always they kept it as their goal. The trail they were upon led to it—of that there could be no longer the slightest doubt. And as they rode with their destination in view black, beady eyes looked down upon them from the very green oasis toward which they urged their ponies—tiring now from the climb.
A lithe, brown body lay stretched comfortably upon a bed of grasses at the edge of a little rise of ground beneath which the riders must pass before they came to the cluster of huts which squatted in a tiny natural park at the foot of the main peak. Far above the watcher a spring of clear, pure water bubbled out of the mountain-side, and running downward formed little pools among the rocks which held it. And with this water the Pimans irrigated their small fields before it sank from sight again into the earth just below their village. Beside the brown body lay a long rifle. The man's eyes watched, unblinking, the two specks far below him whom he knew and had known for an hour were gringos.
Another brown body wormed itself forward to his side and peered over the edge of the declivity down upon the white men. He spoke a few words in a whisper to him who watched with the rifle, and then crawled back again and disappeared. And all the while, onward and upward came Billy Byrne and Eddie Shorter, each knowing in his heart that if not already, then at any moment a watcher would discover them and a little later a bullet would fly that would find one of them, and they took the chance for the sake of the American girl who lay hidden somewhere in these hills, for in no other way could they locate her hiding place more quickly. Any one of the other eight Americans who rode in pairs into the hills at other points to the left and right of Billy Byrne and his companion would have and was even then cheerfully taking the same chances that Eddie and Billy took, only the latter were now assured that to one of them would fall the sacrifice, for as they had come closer Eddie had seen a thin wreath of smoke rising from among the trees of the oasis. Now, indeed, were they sure that they had chanced upon the trail to the Piman village.
"We gotta keep our eyes peeled," said Eddie, as they wound into a ravine which from its location evidently led directly up to the village. "We ain't far from 'em now, an' if they get us they'll get us about here."
As though to punctuate his speech with the final period a rifle cracked above them. Eddie jumped spasmodically and clutched his breast.
"I'm hit," he said, quite unemotionally.
Billy Byrne's revolver had answered the shot from above them, the bullet striking where Billy had seen a puff of smoke following the rifle shot. Then Billy turned toward Eddie.
"Hit bad?" he asked.
"Yep, I guess so," said Eddie. "What'll we do? Hide up here, or ride back after the others?"
Another shot rang out above them, although Billy had been watching for a target at which to shoot again—a target which he had been positive he would get when the man rose to fire again. And Billy did see the fellow at last—a few paces from where he had first fired; but not until the other had dropped Eddie's horse beneath him. Byrne fired again, and this time he had the satisfaction of seeing a brown body rise, struggle a moment, and then roll over once upon the grass before it came to rest.
"I reckon we'll stay here," said Billy, looking ruefully at Eddie's horse.
Eddie rose and as he did so he staggered and grew very white. Billy dismounted and ran forward, putting an arm about him. Another shot came from above and Billy Byrne's pony grunted and collapsed.
"Hell!" exclaimed Byrne. "We gotta get out of this," and lifting his wounded comrade in his arms he ran for the shelter of the bluff from the summit of which the snipers had fired upon them. Close in, hugging the face of the perpendicular wall of tumbled rock and earth, they were out of range of the Indians; but Billy did not stop when he had reached temporary safety. Farther up toward the direction in which lay the village, and halfway up the side of the bluff Billy saw what he took to be excellent shelter. Here the face of the bluff was less steep and upon it lay a number of large bowlders, while others protruded from the ground about them.
Toward these Billy made his way. The wounded man across his shoulder was suffering indescribable agonies; but he bit his lip and stifled the cries that each step his comrade took seemed to wrench from him, lest he attract the enemy to their position.
Above them all was silence, yet Billy knew that alert, red foemen were creeping to the edge of the bluff in search of their prey. If he could but reach the shelter of the bowlders before the Pimans discovered them!
The minutes that were consumed in covering the hundred yards seemed as many hours to Billy Byrne; but at last he dragged the fainting cowboy between two large bowlders close under the edge of the bluff and found himself in a little, natural fortress, well adapted to defense.
From above they were protected from the fire of the Indians upon the bluff by the height of the bowlder at the foot of which they lay, while another just in front hid them from possible marksmen across the canyon. Smaller rocks scattered about gave promise of shelter from flank fire, and as soon as he had deposited Eddie in the comparative safety of their retreat Byrne commenced forming a low breastwork upon the side facing the village—the direction from which they might naturally expect attack. This done he turned his attention to the opening upon the opposite side and soon had a similar defense constructed there, then he turned his attention to Eddie, though keeping a watchful eye upon both approaches to their stronghold.
The Kansan lay upon his side, moaning. Blood stained his lips and nostrils, and when Billy Byrne opened his shirt and found a gaping wound in his right breast he knew how serious was his companion's injury. As he felt Billy working over him the boy opened his eyes.
"Do you think I'm done for?" he asked in a tortured whisper.
"Nothin' doin'," lied Billy cheerfully. "Just a scratch. You'll be all right in a day or two."
Eddie shook his head wearily. "I wish I could believe you," he said. "I ben figgerin' on goin' back to see maw. I ain't thought o' nothin' else since you told me 'bout how she missed me. I ken see her right now just like I was there. I'll bet she's scrubbin' the kitchen floor. Maw was always a-scrubbin' somethin'. Gee! but it's tough to cash in like this just when I was figgerin' on goin' home."
Billy couldn't think of anything to say. He turned to look up and down the canyon in search of the enemy.
"Home!" whispered Eddie. "Home!"
"Aw, shucks!" said Billy kindly. "You'll get home all right, kid. The boys must a-heard the shootin' an' they'll be along in no time now. Then we'll clean up this bunch o' coons an' have you back to El Orobo an' nursed into shape in no time."
Eddie tried to smile as he looked up into the other's face. He reached a hand out and laid it on Billy's arm.
"You're all right, old man," he whispered. "I know you're lyin' an' so do you; but it makes me feel better anyway to have you say them things."
Billy felt as one who has been caught stealing from a blind man. The only adequate reply of which he could think was, "Aw, shucks!"
"Say," said Eddie after a moment's silence, "if you get out o' here an' ever go back to the States promise me you'll look up maw and paw an' tell 'em I was comin' home—to stay. Tell 'em I died decent, too, will you—died like paw was always a-tellin' me my granddad died, fightin' Injuns 'round Fort Dodge somewheres."
"Sure," said Billy; "I'll tell 'em. Gee! Look who's comin' here," and as he spoke he flattened himself to the ground just as a bullet pinged against the rock above his head and the report of a rifle sounded from up the canyon. "That guy most got me. I'll have to be 'tendin' to business better'n this."
He drew himself slowly up upon his elbows, his carbine ready in his hand, and peered through a small aperture between two of the rocks which composed his breastwork. Then he stuck the muzzle of the weapon through, took aim and pulled the trigger.
"Didje get him?" asked Eddie.
"Yep," said Billy, and fired again. "Got that one too. Say, they're tough-lookin' guys; but I guess they won't come so fast next time. Those two were right in the open, workin' up to us on their bellies. They must a-thought we was sleepin'."
For an hour Billy neither saw nor heard any sign of the enemy, though several times he raised his hat above the breastwork upon the muzzle of his carbine to draw their fire.
It was midafternoon when the sound of distant rifle fire came faintly to the ears of the two men from somewhere far below them.
"The boys must be comin'," whispered Eddie Shorter hopefully.
For half an hour the firing continued and then silence again fell upon the mountains. Eddie began to wander mentally. He talked much of Kansas and his old home, and many times he begged for water.
"Buck up, kid," said Billy; "the boys'll be along in a minute now an' then we'll get you all the water you want."
But the boys did not come. Billy was standing up now, stretching his legs, and searching up and down the canyon for Indians. He was wondering if he could chance making a break for the valley where they stood some slight chance of meeting with their companions, and even as he considered the matter seriously there came a staccato report and Billy Byrne fell forward in a heap.
"God!" cried Eddie. "They got him now, they got him."
Byrne stirred and struggled to rise.
"Like'll they got me," he said, and staggered to his knees.
Over the breastwork he saw a half-dozen Indians running rapidly toward the shelter—he saw them in a haze of red that was caused not by blood but by anger. With an oath Billy Byrne leaped to his feet. From his knees up his whole body was exposed to the enemy; but Billy cared not. He was in a berserker rage. Whipping his carbine to his shoulder he let drive at the advancing Indians who were now beyond hope of cover. They must come on or be shot down where they were, so they came on, yelling like devils and stopping momentarily to fire upon the rash white man who stood so perfect a target before them.
But their haste spoiled their marksmanship. The bullets zinged and zipped against the rocky little fortress, they nicked Billy's shirt and trousers and hat, and all the while he stood there pumping lead into his assailants—not hysterically; but with the cool deliberation of a butcher slaughtering beeves.
One by one the Pimans dropped until but a single Indian rushed frantically upon the white man, and then the last of the assailants lunged forward across the breastwork with a bullet from Billy's carbine through his forehead.
Eddie Shorter had raised himself painfully upon an elbow that he might witness the battle, and when it was over he sank back, the blood welling from between his set teeth.
Billy turned to look at him when the last of the Pimans was disposed of, and seeing his condition kneeled beside him and took his head in the hollow of an arm.
"You orter lie still," he cautioned the Kansan. "Tain't good for you to move around much."
"It was worth it," whispered Eddie. "Say, but that was some scrap. You got your nerve standin' up there against the bunch of 'em; but if you hadn't they'd have rushed us and some of 'em would a-got in."
"Funny the boys don't come," said Billy.
"Yes," replied Eddie, with a sigh; "it's milkin' time now, an' I figgered on goin' to Shawnee this evenin'. Them's nice cookies, maw. I—"
Billy Byrne was bending low to catch his feeble words, and when the voice trailed out into nothingness he lowered the tousled red head to the hard earth and turned away.
Could it be that the thing which glistened on the eyelid of the toughest guy on the West Side was a tear?
The afternoon waned and night came, but it brought to Billy Byrne neither renewed attack nor succor. The bullet which had dropped him momentarily had but creased his forehead. Aside from the fact that he was blood covered from the wound it had inconvenienced him in no way, and now that darkness had fallen he commenced to plan upon leaving the shelter.
First he transferred Eddie's ammunition to his own person, and such valuables and trinkets as he thought "maw" might be glad to have, then he removed the breechblock from Eddie's carbine and stuck it in his pocket that the weapon might be valueless to the Indians when they found it.
"Sorry I can't bury you old man," was Billy's parting comment, as he climbed over the breastwork and melted into the night.
Billy Byrne moved cautiously through the darkness, and he moved not in the direction of escape and safety but directly up the canyon in the way that the village of the Pimans lay.
Soon he heard the sound of voices and shortly after saw the light of cook fires playing upon bronzed faces and upon the fronts of low huts. Some women were moaning and wailing. Billy guessed that they mourned for those whom his bullets had found earlier in the day. In the darkness of the night, far up among the rough, forbidding mountains it was all very weird and uncanny.
Billy crept closer to the village. Shelter was abundant. He saw no sign of sentry and wondered why they should be so lax in the face of almost certain attack. Then it occurred to him that possibly the firing he and Eddie had heard earlier in the day far down among the foothills might have meant the extermination of the Americans from El Orobo.
"Well, I'll be next then," mused Billy, and wormed closer to the huts. His eyes were on the alert every instant, as were his ears; but no sign of that which he sought rewarded his keenest observation.
Until midnight he lay in concealment and all that time the mourners continued their dismal wailing. Then, one by one, they entered their huts, and silence reigned within the village.
Billy crept closer. He eyed each hut with longing, wondering gaze. Which could it be? How could he determine? One seemed little more promising than the others. He had noted those to which Indians had retired. There were three into which he had seen none go. These, then, should be the first to undergo his scrutiny.
The night was dark. The moon had not yet risen. Only a few dying fires cast a wavering and uncertain light upon the scene. Through the shadows Billy Byrne crept closer and closer. At last he lay close beside one of the huts which was to be the first to claim his attention.
For several moments he lay listening intently for any sound which might come from within; but there was none. He crawled to the doorway and peered within. Utter darkness shrouded and hid the interior.
Billy rose and walked boldly inside. If he could see no one within, then no one could see him once he was inside the door. Therefore, so reasoned Billy Byrne, he would have as good a chance as the occupants of the hut, should they prove to be enemies.
He crossed the floor carefully, stopping often to listen. At last he heard a rustling sound just ahead of him. His fingers tightened upon the revolver he carried in his right hand, by the barrel, clublike. Billy had no intention of making any more noise than necessary.
Again he heard a sound from the same direction. It was not at all unlike the frightened gasp of a woman. Billy emitted a low growl, in fair imitation of a prowling dog that has been disturbed.
Again the gasp, and a low: "Go away!" in liquid feminine tones—and in English!
Billy uttered a low: "S-s-sh!" and tiptoed closer. Extending his hands they presently came in contact with a human body which shrank from him with another smothered cry.
"Barbara!" whispered Billy, bending closer.
A hand reached out through the darkness, found him, and closed upon his sleeve.
"Who are you?" asked a low voice.
"Billy," he replied. "Are you alone in here?"
"No, an old woman guards me," replied the girl, and at the same time they both heard a movement close at hand, and something scurried past them to be silhouetted for an instant against the path of lesser darkness which marked the location of the doorway.
"There she goes!" cried Barbara. "She heard you and she has gone for help."
"Then come!" said Billy, seizing the girl's arm and dragging her to her feet; but they had scarce crossed half the distance to the doorway when the cries of the old woman without warned them that the camp was being aroused.
Billy thrust a revolver into Barbara's hand. "We gotta make a fight of it, little girl," he said. "But you'd better die than be here alone."
As they emerged from the hut they saw warriors running from every doorway. The old woman stood screaming in Piman at the top of her lungs. Billy, keeping Barbara in front of him that he might shield her body with his own, turned directly out of the village. He did not fire at first hoping that they might elude detection and thus not draw the fire of the Indians upon them; but he was doomed to disappointment, and they had taken scarcely a dozen steps when a rifle spoke above the noise of human voices and a bullet whizzed past them.
Then Billy replied, and Barbara, too, from just behind his shoulder. Together they backed away toward the shadow of the trees beyond the village and as they went they poured shot after shot into the village.
The Indians, but just awakened and still half stupid from sleep, did not know but that they were attacked by a vastly superior force, and this fear held them in check for several minutes—long enough for Billy and Barbara to reach the summit of the bluff from which Billy and Eddie had first been fired upon.
Here they were hidden from the view of the Indians, and Billy broke at once into a run, half carrying the girl with a strong arm about her waist.
"If we can reach the foothills," he said, "I think we can dodge 'em, an' by goin' all night we may reach the river and El Orobo by morning. It's a long hike, Barbara, but we gotta make it—we gotta, for if daylight finds us in the Piman country we won't never make it. Anyway," he concluded optimistically, "it's all down hill."
"We'll make it, Billy," she replied, "if we can get past the sentry."
"What sentry?" asked Billy. "I didn't see no sentry when I come in."
"They keep a sentry way down the trail all night," replied the girl. "In the daytime he is nearer the village—on the top of this bluff, for from here he can see the whole valley; but at night they station him farther away in a narrow part of the trail."
"It's a mighty good thing you tipped me off," said Billy; "for I'd a-run right into him. I thought they was all behind us now."
After that they went more cautiously, and when they reached the part of the trail where the sentry might be expected to be found, Barbara warned Billy of the fact. Like two thieves they crept along in the shadow of the canyon wall. Inwardly Billy cursed the darkness of the night which hid from view everything more than a few paces from them; yet it may have been this very darkness which saved them, since it hid them as effectually from an enemy as it hid the enemy from them. They had reached the point where Barbara was positive the sentry should be. The girl was clinging tightly to Billy's left arm. He could feel the pressure of her fingers as they sunk into his muscles, sending little tremors and thrills through his giant frame. Even in the face of death Billy Byrne could sense the ecstasies of personal contact with this girl—the only woman he ever had loved or ever would.