"Sort of spoils the toutensemble, as that young Melrose tenderfoot used to say—kinder as if a bald-haided guy was playing Romeo and had lost his wig in the shuffle," agreed Dave.
By the middle of the forenoon they were well up in the headwaters of the two creeks they were to work. Charlton divided the party so as to cover both watersheds as they swept slowly down. Roy was on the extreme right of those working Del Oro.
It was a rough country, with wooded draws cached in unexpected pockets of the hills. Here a man might lie safely on one of a hundred ledges while the pursuit drove past within fifty feet of him. As Roy's pinto clambered up and down the steep hills, he recalled the advice of Dave to ride a buckskin "that melts into the atmosphere like a patch of bunch grass." He wished he had taken that advice. A man looking for revenge could crouch in the chaparral and with a crook of his finger send winged death at his enemy. A twig crackling under the hoof of his horse more than once sent an electric shock through his pulses. The crash of a bear through the brush seemed to stop the beating of his heart.
Charlton had made a mistake in putting Beaudry on the extreme right of the drive. The number of men combing the two creeks was not enough to permit close contact. Sometimes a rider was within hail of his neighbor. More often he was not. Roy, unused to following the rodeo, was deflected by the topography of the ridge so far to the right that he lost touch with the rest.
By the middle of the afternoon he had to confess to himself with chagrin that he did not even know how to reach Del Oro. While he had been riding the rough wooded ridge above, the creek had probably made a sharp turn to the left. Must he go back the way he had come? Or could he cut across country to it? It was humiliating that he could not even follow a small river without losing the stream and himself. He could vision the cold sneer of Charlton when he failed to appear at the night rendezvous. Even his friends would be annoyed at such helplessness.
After an hour's vain search he was more deeply tangled in the web of hills. He was no longer even sure how to get down from them into the lower reaches of country toward which he was aiming.
While he hesitated on a ridge there came to him a faint, far cry. He gave a shout of relief, then listened for his answer. It did not come. He called again, a third time, and a fourth. The wind brought back no reply. Roy rode in the direction of the sound that had first registered itself on his ears, stopping every minute or two to shout. Once he fancied he heard again the voice.
Then, unexpectedly, the cry came perfectly clear, over to the right scarcely a hundred yards. A little arroyo of quaking aspens lay between him and the one who called. He dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling, and pushed through the growth of young trees. Emerging from these, he climbed the brow of the hill and looked around. Nobody was in sight.
"Where are you?" he shouted.
"Here—in the prospect hole."
His pulses crashed. That voice—he would have known it out of a million.
A small dirt dump on the hillside caught his eye. He ran forward to the edge of a pit and looked down.
The haggard eyes of Beulah Rutherford were lifted to meet his.
Miss Rutherford Speaks her Mind
For the first time in over a year an itinerant preacher was to hold services in the Huerfano Park schoolhouse. He would speak, Beulah Rutherford knew, to a mere handful of people, and it was to mitigate his disappointment that she rode out into the hills on the morning of her disappearance to find an armful of columbines for decorating the desk-pulpit. The man had written Miss Rutherford and asked her to notify the community. She had seen that the news was carried to the remotest ranch, but she expected for a congregation only a scatter of patient women and restless children with three or four coffee-brown youths in high-heeled boots on the back row to represent the sinners.
It was a brave, clean world into which she rode this summer morning. The breeze brought to her nostrils the sweet aroma of the sage. Before her lifted the saw-toothed range into a sky of blue sprinkled here and there with light mackerel clouds. Blacky pranced with fire and intelligence, eager to reach out and leave behind him the sunny miles.
Near the upper end of the park she swung up an arroyo that led to Big Flat Top. A drawling voice stopped her.
"Oh, you, Beulah Rutherford! Where away this glad mo'ning?"
A loose-seated rider was lounging in the saddle on a little bluff fifty yards away. His smile reminded her of a new copper kettle shining in the sun.
"To find columbines for church decorations," she said with an answering smile.
"Have you been building a church since I last met up with you?"
"There will be services in the schoolhouse tomorrow at three P.M., conducted by the Reverend Melancthon Smith. Mr. Charlton is especially invited to attend."
"Maybe I'll be there. You can't sometimes 'most always tell. I'm going to prove I've got nothing against religion by going with you to help gather the pulpit decorations."
"That's very self-sacrificing of you." She flashed a look of gay derision at him as he joined her. "Sure you can afford to waste so much time?"
"I don't call it wasted. But since you've invited me so hearty to your picnic, I'd like to be sure you've got grub enough in the chuck wagon for two," he said with a glance at her saddle-bags.
"I'm not sure. Maybe you had better not come."
"Oh, I'm coming if you starve me. Say, Beulah, have you heard about Jess Tighe?"
"What about him?"
"He had a stroke last night. Doc Spindler thinks he won't live more than a few hours."
Beulah mused over that for a few moments without answer. She had no liking for the man, but it is the way of youth to be shocked at the approach of death. Yet she knew this would help to clear up the situation. With the evil influence of Tighe removed, there would be a chance for the park to develop along more wholesome lines. He had been like a sinister shadow that keeps away the sunlight.
She drew a deep breath. "I don't wish him any harm. But it will be a good thing for all of us when he can't make us more sorrow and trouble."
"He never made me any," Charlton answered.
"Didn't he?" She looked steadily across at him. "You can't tell me he didn't plan that express robbery, for instance."
"Meaning that I was in the party that pulled it off?" he asked, flushing.
"I know well enough you were in it—knew it all along. It's the sort of thing you couldn't keep out of."
"How about Ned? Do you reckon he could keep out of it?" She detected rising anger beneath his controlled voice.
"Not with you leading him on." Her eyes poured scorn on him. "And I'm sure he would appreciate your loyalty in telling me he was in it."
"Why do you jump on me, then?" he demanded sulkily. "And I didn't say Ned was in that hold-up—any more than I admit having been in it myself. Are you trying to make trouble with me? Is that it?"
"I don't care whether I make trouble with you or not. I'm not going to pretend and make-believe, if that's what you want. I don't have to do it."
"I see you don't," he retorted bluntly. "I suppose you don't have to mind your own business either."
"It is my business when Ned follows you into robbery."
"Maybe I followed him," he jeered.
She bit back the tart answer on her tongue. What was the use of quarreling? It used to be that they were good friends, but of late they jangled whenever they met. Ever since the Western Express affair she had held a grudge at him. Six months ago she had almost promised to marry him. Now nothing was farther from her thoughts.
But he was still very much of the mind that she should.
"What's the matter with you, Boots?" he wanted to know roughly. "You used to have some sense. You weren't always flying out at a fellow. Now there's no way of pleasing you."
"I suppose it is odd that I don't want my friends to be thieves," she flung out bitterly.
"Don't use that word if you mean me," he ordered.
"What word shall I substitute?"
He barely suppressed an oath. "I know what's ailing you? We're not smooth enough up here for you. We're not educated up to your standard. If I'd been to Cornell, say—"
"Take care," she warned with a flash of anger in her black eyes.
"Oh, I don't know. Why should I cull my words so careful? I notice yours ain't hand-picked. Ever since this guy Beaudry came spying into the park, you've had no use for me. You have been throwing yourself at his head and couldn't see any one else."
She gasped. "How dare you, Brad Charlton?"
His jealousy swept away the prudence that had dammed his anger. "Didn't you take him out driving? Didn't you spend a night alone with him and Dave Dingwell? Didn't you hot-foot it down to Hart's because you was afraid yore precious spy would meet up with what he deserved?"
Beulah drew up Blacky abruptly. "Now you can leave me. Don't stop to say good-bye. I hate you. I don't ever want to see you again."
He had gone too far and he knew it. Sulkily he began to make his apology. "You know how fond I am of you, Boots. You know—"
"Yes, I ought to. I've heard it often enough," she interrupted curtly. "That's probably why you insult me?"
Her gypsy eyes stabbed him. She was furiously angry. He attempted to explain. "Now, listen here, Beulah. Let's be reasonable."
"Are you going up or down?" she demanded. "I'm going the other way. Take one road or the other, you—you scandalmonger."
Never a patient man, he too gave rein to his anger. "Since you want to know, I'm going down—to Battle Butte, where I'll likely meet yore friend Beaudry and settle an account or two with him. I reckon before I git through with him he'll yell something besides Cornell."
The girl laughed scornfully. "Last time I saw him he had just beaten a dozen or so of you. How many friends are you going to take along this trip?"
Already her horse was taking the trail. She called the insult down to him over her shoulder. But before she had gone a half-mile her eyes were blind with tears. Why did she get so angry? Why did she say such things? Other girls were ladylike and soft-spoken. Was there a streak of commonness in her that made possible such a scene as she had just gone through? In her heart she longed to be a lady—gentle, refined, sweet of spirit. Instead of which she was a bad-tempered tomboy. "Miss Spitfire" her brothers sometimes called her, and she knew the name was justified.
Take this quarrel now with Brad. She had had no intention of breaking with him in that fashion. Why couldn't she dismiss a lover as girls in books do, in such a way as to keep him for a friend? She had not meant, anyhow, to bring the matter to issue to-day. One moment they had been apparently the best of comrades. The next they had been saying hateful things to each other. What he had said was unforgivable, but she had begun by accusing him of complicity in the train robbery. Knowing how arrogant he was, she might have guessed how angry criticism would make him.
Yet she was conscious of a relief that it was over with at last. Charlton was proud. He would leave her alone unless she called him to her side. Her tears were for the humiliating way in which they had wrenched apart rather than for the fact of the break.
She knew his temper. Nothing on earth could keep him from flying at the throat of Roy Beaudry now. Well, she had no interest in either of them, she reminded herself impatiently. It was none of her business how they settled their differences. Yet, as Blacky followed the stiff trail to Big Flat Top, her mind was wretchedly troubled.
Beulah had expected to find her columbines in a gulch back of Big Flat Top, but the flowers were just past their prime here. The petals fell fluttering at her touch. She hesitated. Of course, she did not have to get columbines for the preaching service. Sweet-peas would do very well. But she was a young woman who did not like to be beaten. She had plenty of time, and she wanted an excuse to be alone all day. Why not ride over to Del Oro Creek, where the season was later and the columbines would be just coming on?
The ayes had it, and presently Miss Rutherford was winding deeper into the great hills that skirted Flat Top. Far in the gulches, dammed by the small thick timber, she came on patches of snow upon which the sun never shone. Once a ptarmigan started from the brush at her feet. An elk sprang up from behind a log, stared at her, and crashed away through the fallen timber.
Her devious road took Beulah past a hill flaming with goldenrod and Indian paint-brushes. A wealth of color decorated every draw, for up here at the roots of the peaks blossoms rioted in great splashes that ran to the snowbanks.
After all, she had to go lower for her favorite blooms. On Del Oro she found columbines, but in no great profusion. She wandered from the stream, leading Blacky by the bridle. On a hillside just above an aspen grove the girl came upon scattered clumps of them. Tying the pony loosely to a clump of bushes, she began to gather the delicate blue wild flowers.
The blossoms enticed her feet to the edge of a prospect hole long since abandoned. A clump of them grew from the side of the pit about a foot below the level of the ground. Beulah reached for them, and at the same moment the ground caved beneath her feet. She clutched at a bush in vain as she plunged down.
Jarred by the fall, Beulah lay for a minute in a huddle at the bottom of the pit. She was not quite sure that no bones were broken. Before she had time to make certain, a sound brought her rigidly to her feet. It was a light loose sound like the shaking of dried peas in their pods. No dweller of the outdoors Southwest could have failed to recognize it, and none but would have been startled by it.
The girl whipped her revolver from its scabbard and stood pressed against the rock wall while her eyes searched swiftly the prison into which she had fallen. Again came that light swift rattle with its sinister menace.
The enemy lay coiled across the pit from her, head and neck raised, tongue vibrating. Beulah fired—once—twice—a third time. It was enough. The rattlesnake ceased writhing.
The first thing she did was to examine every inch of her prison to make sure there were no more rattlers. Satisfied as to this, she leaned faintly against the wall. The experience had been a shock even to her sound young nerves.
In the Pit
Beulah shut her eyes to steady herself. From the impact of her fall she was still shaken. Moreover, though she had shot many a rattlesnake, this was the first time she had ever been flung head first into the den of one. It would have been easy to faint, but she denied herself the luxury of it and resolutely fought back the swimming lightness in her head.
Presently she began to take stock of her situation. The prospect hole was circular in form, about ten feet across and nine feet deep. The walls were of rock and smooth clay. Whatever timbering had been left by the prospector was rotted beyond use. It crumbled at the weight of her foot.
How was she to get out? Of course, she would find some way, she told herself. But how? Blacky was tied to a bush not fifty yards away, and fastened to the saddle horn was the rope that would have solved her problem quickly enough. If she had it here—But it might as well be at Cheyenne for all the good it would do her now.
Perhaps she could dig footholds in the wall by means of which she could climb out. Unbuckling the spur from her heel, she used the rowel as a knife to jab a hole in the clay. After half an hour of persistent work she looked at the result in dismay. She had gouged a hollow, but it was not one where her foot could rest while she made steps above.
Every few minutes Beulah stopped work to shout for help. It was not likely that anybody would be passing. Probably she had been the only person on this hill for months. But she dared not miss any chance.
For it was coming home to her that she might die of starvation in this prison long before her people found the place. By morning search parties would be out over the hills looking for her. But who would think to find her away over on Del Oro? If Brad had carried out his threat immediately and gone down to Battle Butte, nobody would know even the general direction in which to seek.
With every hour Beulah grew more troubled. Late in the afternoon she fired a fourth shot from her revolver in the hope that some one might hear the sound and investigate. The sun set early for her. She watched its rays climb the wall of her prison while she worked half-heartedly with the spur. After a time the light began to fade, darkness swept over the land, and she had to keep moving in order not to chill.
Never had she known such a night. It seemed to the tortured girl that morning would never come. She counted the stars above her. Sometimes there were more. Sometimes fewer. After an eternity they began to fade out in the sky. Day was at hand.
She fired the fifth shot from her revolver. Her voice was hoarse from shouting, but she called every few minutes. Then, when she was at the low ebb of hope, there came an answer to her call. She fired her last shot. She called and shouted again and again. The voice that came back to her was close at hand.
"I'm down in the prospect hole," she cried. Another moment, and she was looking up into the face of a man, Dan Meldrum. In vacant astonishment he gazed down at her.
"Whad you doing here?" he asked roughly.
"I fell in. I've been here all night." Her voice broke a little. "Oh, I'm so glad you've come."
It was of no importance that he was a man she detested, one who had quarreled with her father and been thrashed by her brother for insulting her. All she thought of was that help had come to her at last and she was now safe.
He stared down at her with a kind of drunken malevolence.
"So you fell in, eh?"
"Yes. Please help me out right away. My riata is tied to Blacky's saddle."
He looked around. "Where?"
"Isn't Blacky there? He must have broken loose, then. Never mind. Pass me down the end of a young sapling and you can pull me up."
For the first time she felt a shock of alarm. There was in his voice something that chilled her, something inexpressibly cruel.
"I'll see my father rewards you. I'll see you get well paid," she promised, and the inflection of the words was an entreaty.
"You will, eh?"
"Anything you want," she hurried on. "Name it. If we can give it to you, I promise it."
His drunken brain was functioning slowly. This was the girl who had betrayed him up in Chicito Canon, the one who had frustrated his revenge at Hart's. On account of her young Rutherford had given him the beating of his life and Hal had driven him from Huerfano Park. First and last she was the rock upon which his fortunes had split. Now chance had delivered her into his hands. What should he do with her? How could he safely make the most of the opportunity?
It did not for an instant occur to him to haul her from the pit and send her rejoicing on the homeward way. He intended to make her pay in full. But how? How get his revenge and not jeopardize his own safety?
"Won't you hurry, please?" she pleaded. "I'm hungry—and thirsty. I've been here all night and most of yesterday. It's been . . . rather awful."
He rubbed his rough, unshaven cheek while his little pig eyes looked down into hers. "That so? Well, I dunno as it's any business of mine where you spend the night or how long you stay there. I had it put up to me to lay off 'n interfering with you. Seems like yore family got notions I was insulting you. That young bully Jeff jumped me whilst I wasn't looking and beat me up. Hal Rutherford ordered me to pull my freight. That's all right. I won't interfere in what don't concern me. Yore family says 'Hands off!' Fine. Suits me. Stay there or get out. It's none of my business. See?"
"You don't mean you'll . . . leave me here?" she cried in horror.
"Sure," he exulted. "If I pulled you out of there, like as not you'd have me beat up again. None o' my business! That's what yore folks have been drilling into me. I reckon they're right. Anyhow, I'll play it safe."
"But—Oh, you can't do that. Even you can't do such a thing," she cried desperately. "Why, men don't do things like that."
"Don't they? Watch me, missie." He leaned over the pit, his broken, tobacco-stained teeth showing in an evil grin. "Just keep an eye on yore Uncle Dan. Nobody ever yet done me a meanness and got away with it. I reckon the Rutherfords won't be the first. It ain't on the cyards," he boasted.
"You're going away . . . to leave me here . . . to starve?"
"Who said anything about going away? I'll stick around for a while. It's none of my business whether you starve or live high. Do just as you please about that. I'll let you alone, like I promised Jeff I would. You Rutherfords have got no call to object to being starved, anyhow. Whad you do to Dave Dingwell in Chicito?"
After all, she was only a girl in spite of her little feminine ferocities and her pride and her gameness. She had passed through a terrible experience, had come out of it to apparent safety and had been thrown back into despair. It was natural that sobs should shake her slender body as she leaned against the quartz wall of her prison and buried her head in her forearm.
When presently the sobs grew fewer and less violent, Beulah became aware without looking up that her tormentor had taken away his malignant presence. This was at first a relief, but as the hours passed an acute fear seized her. Had he left her alone to die? In spite of her knowledge of the man, she had clung to the hope that he would relent. But if he had gone—
She began again to call at short intervals for help. Sometimes tears of self-pity choked her voice. More than once she beat her brown fists against the rock in an ecstasy of terror.
Then again he was looking down at her, a hulk of venom, eyes bleared with the liquor he had been drinking.
"Were you calling me, missie?" he jeered.
"Let me out," she demanded. "When my brothers find me—"
"If they find you," he corrected with a hiccough.
"They'll find me. By this time everybody in Huerfano Park is searching for me. Before night half of Battle Butte will be in the saddle. Well, when they find me, do you think you won't be punished for this?"
"For what?" demanded the man. "You fell in. I haven't touched you."
"Will that help you, do you think?"
His rage broke into speech. "You're aimin' to stop my clock, are you? Take another guess, you mischief-making vixen. What's to prevent me from emptying my forty-four into you when I get good and ready, then hitting the trail for Mexico?"
She knew he was speaking the thoughts that had been drifting through his mind in whiskey-lit ruminations. That he was a wanton killer she had always heard. If he could persuade himself it could be done with safety, he would not hesitate to make an end of her.
This was the sort of danger she could fight against—and she did.
"I'll tell you what's to prevent you," she flung back, as it were in a kind of careless scorn. "Your fondness for your worthless hide. If they find me shot to death, they will know who did it. You couldn't hide deep enough in Chihuahua to escape them. My father would never rest till he had made an end of you."
Her argument sounded appallingly reasonable to him. He knew the Rutherfords. They would make him pay his debt to them with usury.
To stimulate his mind he took another drink, after which he stared down at her a long time in sullen, sulky silence. She managed at the same time to irritate him and tempt him and fill his coward heart with fear of consequences. Through the back of his brain from the first there had been filtering thoughts that were like crouching demons. They reached toward her and drew back in alarm. He was too white-livered to go through with his villainy boldly.
He recorked the bottle and put it in his hip pocket. "'Nough said," he blustered. "Me, I'll git on my hawss and be joggin' along to Mex. I'll take chances on their finding you before you're starved. After that it won't matter to me when they light on yore body."
"Oh, yes, it will," she corrected him promptly, "I'm going to write a note and tell just what has happened. It will be found beside me in case they . . . don't reach here in time."
The veins in his blotched face stood out as he glared down at her while he adjusted himself to this latest threat. Here, too, she had him. He had gone too far. Dead or alive, she was a menace to his safety.
Since he must take a chance, why not take a bigger one, why not follow the instigation of the little crouching devils in his brain? He leered down at her with what was meant to be an ingratiating smile.
"Sho! What's the use of we 'uns quarreling, Miss Beulah? I ain't got nothing against you. Old Dan he always liked you fine. I reckon you didn't know that, did you?"
Her quick glance was in time to catch his face napping. The keen eyes of the girl pounced on his and dragged from them a glimpse of the depraved soul of the ruffian. Silently and warily she watched him.
"I done had my little joke, my dear," he went on. "Now we'll be heap good friends. Old Dan ain't such a bad sort. There's lots of folks worse than Dan. That's right. Now, what was that you said a while ago about giving me anything I wanted?"
"I said my father would pay you anything in reason." Her throat was parched, but her eyes were hard and bright. No lithe young panther of the forest could have been more alert than she.
"Leave yore dad out of it. He ain't here, and, anyway, I ain't having any truck with him. Just say the word, Miss Beulah, and I'll git a pole and haul you up in a jiffy."
Beulah made a mistake. She should have waited till she was out of the pit before she faced the new issue. But her horror of the man was overpowering. She unscabbarded swiftly the revolver at her side and lifted it defiantly toward him.
"I'll stay here."
Again he foamed into rage. The girl had stalemated him once more. "Then stay, you little wild cat. You've had yore chance. I'm through with you." He bared his teeth in a snarling grin and turned his back on her.
Beulah heard him slouching away. Presently there came the sound of a furiously galloping horse. The drumming of the hoofbeats died in the distance.
During the rest of the day she saw no more of the man. It swept over her toward evening in a wave of despair that he had left her to her fate.
The Bad Man Decides not to Shoot
Beulah woke from a sleep of exhaustion to a world into which the morning light was just beginning to sift. The cold had penetrated to her bones. She was stiff and cramped and sore from the pressure of the rock bed against her tender young flesh. For nearly two days she had been without food or drink. The urge of life in her was at low tide.
But the traditions among which she had been brought up made pluck a paramount virtue. She pushed from her the desire to weep in self-pity over her lot. Though her throat was raw and swollen, she called at regular intervals during the morning hours while the sun climbed into view of her ten-foot beat. Even when it rode the heavens a red-hot cannon ball directly above her, the hoarse and lonely cry of the girl echoed back from the hillside every few minutes. There were times when she wanted to throw herself down and give up to despair, but she knew there would be opportunity for that when she could no longer fight for her life. The shadow was beginning to climb the eastern wall of the pit before Beaudry's shout reached her ears faintly. Her first thought was that she must already be delirious. Not till she saw him at the edge of the prospect hole was she sure that her rescuer was a reality.
At the first sight of her Roy wanted to trumpet to high heaven the joy that flooded his heart. He had found her—alive. After the torment of the night and the worry of the day he had come straight to her in his wandering, and he had reached her in time.
But when he saw her condition pity welled up in him. Dark hollows had etched themselves into her cheeks. Tears swam in her eyes. Her lips trembled weakly from emotion. She leaned against the side of the pit to support her on account of the sudden faintness that engulfed her senses. He knelt and stretched his hands toward her, but the pit was too deep.
"You'll have to get a pole or a rope," she told him quietly.
Beaudry found the dead trunk of a young sapling and drew the girl up hand over hand. On the brink she stumbled and he caught her in his arms to save her from falling back into the prospect hole.
For a moment she lay close to him, heart beating against heart. Then, with a little sobbing sigh, she relaxed and began to weep. Her tears tugged at his sympathy, but none the less the pulses pounded in his veins. He held her tight, with a kind of savage tenderness, while his body throbbed with the joy of her. She had come to him with the same sure instinct that brings a child to its mother's arms. All her pride and disdain and suspicion had melted like summer mists in her need of the love and comfort he could give her.
"It's all right now. You're safe. Nothing can hurt you," he promised.
"I know, but you don't know—what—what—" She broke off, shuddering.
Still with his arm about her, he led Beulah to his horse. Here he made her sit down while he gave her water and food. Bit by bit she told him the story of her experience. He suffered poignantly with her, but he could not be grateful enough that the finger-tip of destiny had pointed him to her prison. He thanked his rather vague gods that it had been his footsteps rather than those of another man that had wandered here to save her.
What surprised and wholly delighted him was the feminine quality of her. He had thought of her before as a wild young creature full of pride and scorn and anger, but with a fine barbaric loyalty that might yet redeem her from her faults. He had never met a young woman so hard, so self-reliant. She had asked no odds because of her sex. Now all this harshness had melted. No strange child could have been more shy and gentle. She had put herself into his hands and seemed to trust him utterly. His casual opinions were accepted by her as if they had been judgments of Solomon.
Roy spread his blankets and put the saddle-bags down for a pillow.
"We're not going to stay here to-night, are we?" she asked, surprised.
He smiled. "No, you're going to lie down and sleep for an hour. When you wake, supper will be ready. You're all in now, but with a little rest you will be fit to travel."
"You won't go away while I sleep," she said.
"Do you think it likely? No, you can't get rid of me that easy. I'm a regular adhesive plaster for sticking."
"I don't want to get rid of you," she answered naively. "I'd be afraid without you. Will you promise to stay close all the time I sleep?"
"I know I won't sleep, but if you want me to try—"
She snuggled down into the blankets and was asleep in five minutes.
Beaudry watched her with hungry eyes. What was the use of denying to himself that he loved her? If he had not known it before, the past half-hour had made it clear to him. With those wan shadows below her long eye-lashes and that charming manner of shy dependence upon him, she was infinitely more attractive to him than she had ever been before.
Beulah Rutherford was not the kind of girl he had thought of as a sweetheart in his daydreams. His fancies had hovered hazily about some imaginary college girl, one skilled in the finesse of the rules that society teaches young women in self-defense. Instead, he had fallen in love with a girl who could not play the social game at all. She was almost the only one he had known who never used any perfume; yet her atmosphere was fragrant as one of the young pines in her own mountain park. The young school-teacher was vital, passionate, and—he suspected—fiercely tender. For her lover there would be rare gifts in her eyes, wonderful largesse in her smile. The man who could qualify as her husband must be clean and four-square and game from the soles of his feet up—such a man as Dave Dingwell, except that the cattleman was ten years too old for her.
Her husband! What was he thinking about? Roy brought his bolting thoughts up with a round turn. There could be no question of marriage between her father's daughter and his father's son. Hal Rutherford had put that out of doubt on the day when he had ridden to the Elephant Corral to murder Sheriff Beaudry. No decent man could marry the daughter of the man who had killed his father in cold blood. Out of such a wedding could come only sorrow and tragedy.
And if this were not bar enough between them, there was another. Beulah Rutherford could never marry a man who was a physical coward. It was a dear joy to his soul that she had broken down and wept and clung to him. But this was the sex privilege of even a brave woman. A man had to face danger with a nerve of tested iron, and that was a thing he could never do.
Roy was stretched on the moss face down, his chin resting on the two cupped palms of his hands. Suddenly he sat up, every nerve tense and alert. Silently he got to his feet and stole down into the aspen grove. With great caution he worked his way into the grove and peered through to the hillside beyond. A man was standing by the edge of the prospect hole. He was looking down into it. Young Beaudry recognized the heavy, slouch figure at the first glance.
Not for an instant did he hesitate about what he meant to do. The hour had come when he and Dan Meldrum must have an accounting. From its holster he drew his revolver and crept forward toward the bad man. His eyes were cold and hard as chilled steel. He moved with the long, soft stride of a panther crouched for the kill. Not till the whole thing was over did he remember that for once the ghost of fear had been driven from his soul. He thought only of the wrongs of Beulah Rutherford, the girl who had fallen asleep in the absolute trust that he would guard her from all danger. This scoundrel had given her two days of living hell. Roy swore to pay the fellow in full.
Meldrum turned. He recognized Beaudry with a snarl of rage and terror. Except one of the Rutherfords there was no man on earth he less wanted to meet. The forty-four in his hand jerked up convulsively. The miscreant was in two minds whether to let fly or wait.
Roy did not even falter in his stride. He did not raise the weapon in his loosely hanging hand. His eyes bored as steadily as gimlets into the craven heart of the outlaw.
Meldrum, in a panic, warned him back. His nerve was gone. For two days he had been drinking hard, but the liquor had given out at midnight. He needed a bracer badly. This was no time for him to go through with a finish fight against such a man as Beaudry.
"Keep yore distance and tell me what you want," the ex-convict repeated hoarsely. "If you don't, I'll gun you sure."
The young cattleman stopped about five yards from him. He knew exactly what terms he meant to give the enemy.
"Put your gun up," he ordered sharply.
"Who's with you?"
"Never mind who is with me. I can play this hand alone. Put up that gun and then we'll talk."
That suited Meldrum. If it was a question of explanations, perhaps he could whine his way out of this. What he had been afraid of was immediate battle. One cannot talk bullets aside.
Slowly he pushed his revolver into its holster, but the hand of the man rested still on the butt.
"I came back to help Miss Rutherford out of this prospect hole," he whimperingly complained. "When onc't I got sober, I done recalled that she was here. So I hit the trail back."
Meldrum spoke the exact truth. When the liquor was out of him, he became frightened at what he had done. He had visions of New Mexico hunting him down like a wild dog. At last, unable to stand it any longer, he had come back to free her.
"That's good. Saves me the trouble of looking for you. I'm going to give you a choice. You and I can settle this thing with guns right here and now. That's one way out for you. I'll kill you where you stand."
"W—what's the other way?" stammered the outlaw.
"The other way is for you to jump into that prospect hole. I'll ride away and leave you there to starve."
"Goddlemighty! You wouldn't do that," Meldrum wheedled. "I didn't go for to hurt Miss Rutherford any. Didn't I tell you I was drunk?"
"Dead or alive, you're going into that prospect hole. Make up your mind to that."
The bad man moistened his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. He stole one furtive glance around. Could he gun this man and make his getaway?
"Are any of the Rutherfords back of that clump of aspens?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.
"Do . . . do they know I'm here?"
Tiny beads of sweat stood out on the blotched face of the rustler. He was trapped. Even if he fired through the leather holster and killed Beaudry, there would be no escape for him on his tired horse.
"Gimme a chanc't," he pleaded desperately. "Honest to God, I'll clear out of the country for good. I'll quit belling around and live decent. I'll—"
"You'll go into the pit."
Meldrum knew as he looked into that white, set face that he had come to his day of judgment. But he mumbled a last appeal.
"I'm an old man, Mr. Beaudry. I ain't got many years—"
"Have you made your choice?" cut in Roy coldly.
"I'd do anything you say—go anywhere—give my Bible oath never to come back."
"Perhaps I'd better call Rutherford."
The bad man made a trembling clutch toward him. "Don't you, Mr. Beaudry. I'll—I'll go into the pit," he sobbed.
"Get in, then."
"I know you wouldn't leave me there to starve. That would be an awful thing to do," the killer begged.
"You're finding that out late. It didn't worry you when Dave Dingwell was being starved."
"I hadn't a thing to do with that—not a thing, Mr. Beaudry. Hal Rutherford, he give the order and it was up to me to go through. Honest, that was the way of it."
"And you could starve a girl who needed your help. That was all right, of course."
"Mr. Beaudry, I—I was only learning her a lesson—just kinder playing, y' understand. Why, I've knowed Miss Beulah ever since she was a little bit of a trick. I wouldn't do her a meanness. It ain't reasonable, now, is it?"
The man fawned on Roy. His hands were shaking with fear. If it would have done any good, he would have fallen on his knees and wept. The sight of him made Roy sick. Was this the way he looked when the yellow streak was showing?
"Jump into that pit," he ordered in disgust. "That is, unless you'd rather I would call Rutherford."
Meldrum shambled to the edge, sat down, turned, and slid into the prospect hole.
"I know it's only yore little joke, Mr. Beaudry," he whined. "Mebbe I ain't jest been neighborly with you-all, but what I say is let bygones be bygones. I'm right sorry. I'll go down with you to Battle Butte and tell the boys I done wrong."
"No, you'll stay here."
Beaudry turned away. The muffled scream of the bad man followed him as far as the aspens.
Two and a Camp-Fire
Roy worked his way through the aspens and returned to the place where he had left Beulah. She was still sleeping soundly and did not stir at his approach. Quietly he built a fire and heated water for coffee. From his saddlebags he took sandwiches wrapped in a newspaper. Beside the girl he put his canteen, a pocket comb, a piece of soap, and the bandanna he wore around his neck. Then, reluctantly, he awakened her.
"Supper will be served in just five minutes," he announced with a smile.
She glanced at the scant toilet facilities and nodded her head decisively. "Thank you, kind sir. I'll be on hand."
The young woman rose, glanced in the direction of the aspens, gathered up the supplies, and fled to the grove. The eyes of Beaudry followed her flight. The hour of sleep had been enough to restore her resilience. She moved with the strong lightness that always reminded him of wild woodland creatures.
In spite of her promise Beulah was away beyond the time limit. Beaudry became a little uneasy. It was not possible, of course, that Meldrum could have escaped from the pit. And yet—
He called to her. "Is every little thing all right, neighbor?"
"All right," she answered.
A moment later she emerged from the aspens and came toward the camp. She was panting a little, as if she had been running.
"Quite a hill," he commented.
She gave him a quick glance. There was in it shy curiosity, but her dark eyes held, too, an emotion more profound.
"Yes," she said. "It makes one breathe fast."
Miss Rutherford had improved her time. The disorderly locks had been hairpinned into place. From her face all traces of the dried tears were washed. Pit clay no longer stained the riding-skirt.
Sandwiches and coffee made their meal, but neither of them had ever more enjoyed eating. Beulah was still ravenously hungry, though she restrained her appetite decorously.
"I forgot to tell you that I am lost," he explained. "Unless you can guide me out of this labyrinth of hills, we'll starve to death."
"I can take you straight to the park."
"But we're not going to the park. Everybody is out looking for you. We are to follow Del Oro down to the flats. The trouble is that I've lost Del Oro," he grinned.
"It is just over the hill."
After refreshments he brought up his pinto horse and helped her to the saddle. She achieved the mount very respectably. With a confidential little laugh she took him into the secret of her success.
"I've been practicing with dad. He has to help me up every time I go riding."
They crossed to Del Oro in the dusk and followed the trail by the creek in the moonlight. In the starlight night her dusky beauty set his pulses throbbing. The sweet look of her dark-lashed eyes stirred strange chaos in him. They talked little, for she, too, felt a delicious emotion singing in the currents of her blood. When their shy eyes met, it was with a queer little thrill as if they had kissed each other.
It was late when they reached the flats. There was no sign of Charlton's party.
"The flats run for miles each way. We might wander all night and not find them," Beulah mentioned.
"Then we'll camp right here and look for them in the morning," decided Roy promptly.
Together they built a camp-fire. Roy returned from picketing the horse to find her sitting on a blanket in the dancing light of the flickering flames. Her happy, flushed face was like the promise of a summer day at dawn.
In that immensity of space, with night's million candles far above them and the great hills at their backs, the walls that were between them seemed to vanish.
Their talk was intimate and natural. It had the note of comradeship, took for granted sympathy and understanding.
He showed her the picture of his mother. By the fire glow she studied it intently. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
"She's so lovely and so sweet—and she had to go away and leave her little baby when she was so young. I don't wonder you worship her. I would, too."
Roy did not try to thank her in words. He choked up in his throat and nodded.
"You can see how fine and dainty she was," the girl went on. "I'd rather be like that than anything else in the world—and, of course, I never can be."
"I don't know what you mean," he protested warmly. "You're as fine as they grow."
She smiled, a little wistfully. "Nice of you to say so, but I know better. I'm not a lady. I'm just a harum-scarum, tempery girl that grew up in the hills. If I didn't know it, that wouldn't matter. But I do know it, and so like a little idiot I pity myself because I'm not like nice girls."
"Thank Heaven, you're not!" he cried. "I've never met a girl fit to hold a candle to you. Why, you're the freest, bravest, sweetest thing that ever lived."
The hot blood burned slowly into her cheek under its dusky coloring. His words were music to her, and yet they did not satisfy.
"You're wrapping it up nicely, but we both know that I'm a vixen when I get angry," she said quietly. "We used to have an old Indian woman work for us. When I was just a wee bit of a thing she called me Little Cactus Tongue."
"That's nothing. The boys were probably always teasing you and you defended yourself. In a way the life you have led has made you hard. But it is just a surface hardness nature has provided as a protection to you."
"Since it is there, I don't see that it helps much to decide why it is a part of me," she returned with a wan little smile.
"But it does," he insisted. "It matters a lot. The point is that it isn't you at all. Some day you'll slough it the way a butterfly does its shell."
"When?" she wanted to know incredulously.
He did not look at her while he blurted out his answer. "When you are happily married to a man you love who loves you."
"Oh! I'm afraid that will be never." She tried to say it lightly, but her face glowed from the heat of an inward fire.
"There's a deep truth in the story of the princess who slept the years away until the prince came along and touched her lips with his. Don't you think lots of people are hampered by their environment? All they need is escape." He suggested this with a shy diffidence.
"Oh, we all make that excuse for ourselves," she answered with a touch of impatient scorn. "I'm all the time doing it. I say if things were different I would be a nice, sweet-tempered, gentle girl and not fly out like that Katherine in Shakespeare's play. But I know all the time it isn't true. We have to conquer ourselves. There is no city of refuge from our own temperaments."
He felt sure there was a way out from her fretted life for this deep-breasted, supple daughter of the hills if she could only find it. She had breathed an atmosphere that made for suspicion and harshness. All her years she had been forced to fight to save herself from shame. But Roy, as he looked at her, imaged another picture of Beulah Rutherford. Little children clung to her knees and called her "Mother." She bent over them tenderly, her face irradiated with love. A man whose features would not come clear strode toward her and the eyes she lifted to his were pools of light.
Beaudry drew a deep breath and looked away from her into the fire. "I wish time would solve my problem as surely as it will yours," he said.
She looked at him eagerly, lips parted, but she would not in words invite his confession.
The young man shaded his eyes with his hand as if to screen them from the fire, but she noticed that the back of his hand hid them from her, too. He found a difficulty in beginning. When at last he spoke, his voice was rough with feeling.
"Of course, you'll despise me—you of all people. How could you help it?"
Her body leaned toward him ever so slightly. Love lit her face like a soft light.
"Shall I? How do you know?"
"It cuts so deep—goes to the bottom of things. If a fellow is wild or even bad, he may redeem himself. But you can't make a man out of a yellow cur. The stuff isn't there." The words came out jerkily as if with some physical difficulty.
"If you mean about coming up to the park, I know about that," she said gently. "Mr. Dingwell told father. I think it was splendid of you."
"No, that isn't it. I knew I was right in coming and that some day you would understand." He dropped the hand from his face and looked straight at her. "Dave didn't tell your father that I had to be flogged into going, did he? He didn't tell him that I tried to dodge out of it with excuses."
"Of course, you weren't anxious to throw up your own affairs and run into danger for a man you had never met. Why should you be wild for the chance. But you went."
"Oh, I went. I had to go. Ryan put it up to me so that there was no escape," was his dogged, almost defiant, answer.
"I know better," the girl corrected quickly. "You put it up to yourself. You're that way."
"Am I?" He flashed a questioning look at her. "Then, since you know that, perhaps you know, too, what—what I'm trying to tell you."
"Perhaps I do," she whispered softly to the fire.
There was panic in his eyes. "—That . . . that I—"
"—That you are sensitive and have a good deal of imagination," the girl concluded gently.
"No, I'll not feed my vanity with pleasant lies to-night." He gave a little gesture of self-scorn as he rose to throw some dry sticks on the fire. "What I mean and what you mean is that—that I'm an arrant coward." Roy gulped the last words out as if they burned his throat.
"I don't mean that at all," she flamed. "How can you say such a thing about yourself when everybody knows that you're the bravest man in Washington County?"
"No—no. I'm a born trembler." From where he stood beyond the fire he looked across at her with dumb anguish in his eyes. "You say yourself you've noticed it. Probably everybody that knows me has."
"I didn't say that." Her dark eyes challenged his very steadily. "What I said was that you have too much imagination to rush into danger recklessly. You picture it all out vividly beforehand and it worries you. Isn't that the way of it?"
He nodded, ashamed.
"But when the time comes, nobody could be braver than you," she went on. "You've been tried out a dozen times in the last three months. You have always made good."
"Made good! If you only knew!" he answered bitterly.
"Knew what? I saw you down at Hart's when Dan Meldrum ordered you to kneel and beg. But you gamed it out, though you knew he meant to kill you."
He flushed beneath the tan. "I was too paralyzed to move. That's the simple truth."
"Were you too paralyzed to move down at the arcade of the Silver Dollar?" she flashed at him.
"It was the drink in me. I wasn't used to it and it went to my head."
"Had you been drinking that time at the depot?" she asked with a touch of friendly irony.
"That wasn't courage. If it would have saved me, I would have run like a rabbit. But there was no chance. The only hope I had was to throw a fear into him. But all the time I was sick with terror."
She rose and walked round the camp-fire to him. Her eyes were shining with a warm light of admiration. Both hands went out to him impulsively.
"My friend, that is the only kind of courage really worth having. That kind you earn. It is yours because it is born of the spirit. You have fought for it against the weakness of the flesh and the timidity of your own soul. Some men are born without sense or imagination. They don't know enough to be afraid. But the man who tramples down a great fear wins his courage by earning it." She laughed a little, to make light of her own enthusiasm. "Oh, I know I'm preaching like a little prig. But it's the truth, just the same."
At the touch of her fingers his pulses throbbed. But once more he tried to make her understand.
"No, I've had luck all the way through. Do you remember that night at the cabin—before we went up the canon?"
"Some one shot at me as I ran into the cabin. I was so frightened that I piled all the furniture against the door and hid in the cellar. It was always that way with me. I used to jump if anybody rode up unexpectedly at the ranch. Every little thing set my nerves fluttering."
"But it isn't so now."
"No, not so much."
"That's what I'm telling you," she triumphed. "You came out here from a soft life in town. But you've grown tough because you set your teeth to go through no matter what the cost. I wish I could show you how much I . . . admire you. Dad feels that way, too. So does Ned."
"But I don't deserve it. That's what humiliates me."
"Don't you?" She poured out her passionate protest. "Do you think I don't know what happened back there at the prospect hole? Do you think I don't know that you put Dan Meldrum down in the pit—and him with a gun in his hand? Was it a coward that did that?"
"So you knew that all the time," he cried.
"I heard him calling you—and I went close. Yes, I knew it. But you would never have told me because it might seem like bragging."
"It was easy enough. I wasn't thinking of myself, but of you. He saw I meant business and he wilted."
"You were thinking about me—and you forgot to be afraid," the girl exulted.
"Yes, that was it." A wave of happiness broke over his heart as the sunlight does across a valley at dawn. "I'm always thinking of you. Day and night you fill my thoughts, hillgirl. When I'm riding the range—whatever I do—you're with me all the time."
Her lips were slightly parted, eyes eager and hungry. The heart of the girl drank in his words as the thirsty roots of a rosebush do water. She took a long deep breath and began to tremble.
"I think of you as the daughter of the sun and the wind. Some day you will be the mother of heroes, the wife of a man—"
"Yes," she prompted again, and the face lifted to his was flushed with innocent passion.
The shy invitation of her dark-lashed eyes was not to be denied. He flung away discretion and snatched her into his arms. An inarticulate little sound welled up from her throat, and with a gesture wholly savage and feminine her firm arms crept about his neck and fastened there.
The Sins of the Fathers
They spoke at first only in that lovers' Esperanto which is made up of fond kisses and low murmurs and soft caresses. From these Beulah was the first to emerge.
"Would you marry a girl off the range?" she whispered. "Would you dare take her home to your people?"
"I haven't any people. There are none of them left but me."
"To your friends, then?"
"My friends will be proud as punch. They'll wonder how I ever hypnotized you into caring for me."
"But I'm only a hillgirl," she protested. "Are you sure you won't be ashamed of me, dear?"
"Certain sure. I'm a very sensible chap at bottom, and I know when I have the best there is."
"Ah, you think that now because—"
"Because of my golden luck in winning the most wonderful girl I ever met." In the fling of the fire glow he made a discovery and kissed it. "I didn't know before that you had dimples."
"There are lots of things you don't know about me. Some of them you won't like. But if you love me, perhaps you'll forgive them, and then—because I love you—maybe I'll grow out of them. I feel to-night as if anything were possible. The most wonderful thing that ever happened to me has come into my life."
"My heart is saying that, too, sweetheart."
"I love to hear you say that I'm—nice," she confided. "Because, you know, lots of people don't think so. The best people in Battle Butte won't have anything to do with me. I'm one of the Rutherford gang."
The light was full on his face, so that she saw the dawning horror in his eyes.
"What is it? What are you thinking?" she cried.
He gave a little groan and his hands fell slackly from her. "I'd forgotten." The words came in a whisper, as if he spoke to himself rather than to her.
"Forgotten what?" she echoed; and like a flash added: "That I'm a Rutherford. Is that what you mean?"
"That you are the daughter of Hal Rutherford and that I'm the son of John Beaudry."
"You mean that you would be ashamed to marry a Rutherford," she said, her face white in the fire glow.
"No." He brushed her challenge aside and went straight to what was in his mind. "I'm thinking of what happened seventeen years ago," he answered miserably.
"What did happen that could come between you and me to-night?"
"Have you forgotten, too?" He turned to the fire with a deep breath that was half a sob.
"What is it? Tell me," she demanded.
"Your father killed mine at Battle Butte."
A shiver ran through her lithe, straight body. "No . . . No! Say it isn't true, Roy."
"It's true. I was there . . . Didn't they ever tell you about it?"
"I've heard about the fight when Sheriff Beaudry was killed. Jess Tighe had his spine injured in it. But I never knew that dad . . . You're sure of it?" she flung at him.
"Yes. He led the attackers. I suppose he thought of it as a feud. My father had killed one of his people in a gun fight."
She, too, looked into the fire. It was a long time before she spoke, and then in a small, lifeless voice. "I suppose you . . . hate me."
"Hate you!" His voice shook with agitation. "That would make everything easy. But—there is no other woman in the world for me but you."
Almost savagely she turned toward him. "Do you mean that?"
"I never mean anything so much."
"Then what does it matter about our fathers? We have our own lives to live. If we've found happiness we've a right to it. What happened seventeen years ago can't touch us—not unless we let it."
White-lipped, drear-eyed, Roy faced her hopelessly. "I never thought of it before, but it is true what the Bible says about the sins of the fathers. How can I shake hands in friendship with the man who killed mine? Would it be loyal or decent to go into his family and make him my father by marrying his daughter?"
Beulah stood close to him, her eyes burning into his. She was ready to fight for her love to a finish. "Do you think I'm going to give you up now . . . now . . . just when we've found out how much we care . . . because of any reason under heaven outside ourselves? By God, no! That's a solemn oath, Roy Beaudry. I'll not let you go."
He did not argue with her. Instead, he began to tell her of his father and his mother. As well as he could remember it he related to her the story of that last ride he had taken with John Beaudry. The girl found herself visioning the pathetic tenderness of the father singing the "li'l'-ole-hawss" song under the stars of their night camp. There flashed to her a picture of him making his stand in the stable against the flood of enemies pouring toward him.
When Roy had finished, she spoke softly. "I'm glad you told me. I know now the kind of man your father was. He loved you more than his own life. He was brave and generous and kind. Do you think he would have nursed a grudge for seventeen years? Do you think he would have asked you to give up your happiness to carry on a feud that ought never to have been?"
"You are going to marry me, not Hal Rutherford. He is a good man now, however wild he may have been once. But you needn't believe that just because I say so. Wait and see. Be to him just as much or as little as you like. He'll understand, and so shall I. My people are proud. They won't ask more of you than you care to give. All they'll ask is that you love me—and that's all I ask, dear."
"All you ask now, but later you will be unhappy because there is a gulf between your father and me. You will try to hide it, but I'll know."
"I'll have to take my chance of that," she told him. "I don't suppose that life even with the man you love is all happiness. But it is what I want. It's what I'm not going to let your scruples rob me of."
She spoke with a low-voiced, passionate intensity. The hillgirl was fighting to hold her lover as a creature of the woods does to protect its young. So long as she was sure that he loved her, nothing on earth should come between them. For the moment she was absorbed by the primitive idea that he belonged to her and she to him. All the vital young strength in her rose to repel separation.
Roy, yearning to take into his arms this dusky, brown-cheeked sweetheart of his, became aware that he did not want her to let his arguments persuade her. The fierce, tender egoism of her love filled him with exultant pride.
He snatched her to him and held her tight while his lips found her hot cheeks, her eager eyes, her more than willing mouth.
Beulah was too perfect of body, too sound of health, not to revel in such a dawn as swept across the flats next morning. The sun caressed her throat, her bare head, the uplifted face. As the tender light of daybreak was in the hills, so there was a lilt in her heart that found expression in her voice, her buoyant footsteps, and the shine of her eyes. She had slept soundly in Beaudry's blankets while he had lain down in his slicker on the other side of the fire. Already she was quite herself again. The hours of agony in the pit were obliterated. Life was a wholly joyous and beautiful adventure.
She turned back to the camp where Roy was making coffee.
"Am I not to do any of the work?"
At the sound of that deep, sweet voice with its hint of a drawl the young man looked up and smiled. "Not a bit. All you have to do is to drink my coffee and say I'm the best cook you know."
After they had drunk the coffee and finished the sandwiches, Roy saddled.
"They're probably over to the left. Don't you think so?" Beaudry suggested.
There drifted to them the sound of two shots fired in rapid succession.
Roy fired twice in answer. They moved in the direction of the shooting. Again the breeze brought revolver shots. This time there were three of them.
Beaudry bad an odd feeling that this was a call for help from somebody in difficulties. He quickened their pace. The nature of the ground, a good deal of which was deep sand, made fast travel impossible.
"Look!" Beulah pointed forward and to the right.
At the same moment there came a shout. "Help! I'm in the quicksands."
They made out the figure of a man buried to his waist in the dry wash of a creek. A horse stood on the farther bank of the wash. Roy deflected toward the man, Beulah at his heels.
"He must be caught in Dead Man's Sink," the girl explained. "I've never seen it, but I know it is somewhere near here. All my life I've heard of it. Two Norwegians were caught here five years ago. Before help reached them, they were lost."
"Get me a rope—quick," the man in the sand called.
"Why, it's Brad," cried Beulah.
"Yep. Saw the smoke of yore fire and got caught trying to reach you. Can't make it alone. Thought I sure was a goner. You'll have to hurry."
Already Roy was taking the riata from its place below the saddle-horn. From the edge of the wash he made a cast toward the man in the quicksands. The loop fell short.
"You'll have to get into the bed of the stream," suggested Beulah.
Beaudry moved across the sand a few steps and tried again. The distance was still too great.
Already he was beginning to bog down. The soles of his shoes disappeared in the treacherous sand. When he moved it seemed to him that some monster was sucking at him from below. As he dragged his feet from the sand the sunken tracks filled with mud. He felt the quiver of the river-bed trembling at his weight.
Roy turned to Beulah, the old familiar cold chill traveling up his spine to the roots of his hair. "It won't bear me up. I'm going down," he quavered.
"Let me go, then. I'm lighter," she said eagerly.
She made the proposal in all good faith, with no thought of reflecting on his courage, but it stung her lover like a slap in the face.
"Hurry with that rope!" Charlton sang across. "I'm sinking fast."
"Is there any way for Miss Rutherford to get over to your horse?" asked Roy quickly.
"She can cross the wash two hundred yards below here. It's perfectly safe."
As Roy plunged forward, he gave Beulah orders without turning his head. "You hear, dear. Run down and get across. But go over very carefully. If you come to a bad place, go back at once. When you get over tie Charlton's rope to his saddle-horn and throw him the looped end. The horse will drag him out."
The young woman was off on the run before he had half finished.
Once more Roy coiled and threw the rope. Charlton caught the loop, slipped it over his head, and tightened it under his arms.
"All right. Pull!" he ordered.
Beaudry had no footing to brace himself. Already he was ankle-deep in the quicksand. It flashed across his mind that he could not fight his own way out without abandoning Charlton. For one panicky moment he was mad to get back to solid ground himself. The next he was tugging with all the strength of his arms at the rope.
"Keep on the job!" encouraged Charlton. "You're pulling my body over a little so that the weight is on new sand. If Beulah gets here in time, I'll make it."
Roy pulled till his muscles ached. His own feet were sliding slowly from under him. The water-bubbles that oozed out of the sand were now almost at his high boot-tops. It was too late to think of retreat. He must go through whether he wanted to or not.
He cast one look down the dry river-bed. Beulah was just picking her way across. She might get over in time to save Charlton, but before they made it back across to him, he would be lost.
He wanted to scream aloud to her his urgent need, to beg her, for Heaven's sake, to hurry. The futility of it he knew. She was already running with the knowledge to wing her feet that a man's life hung in the balance. Besides, Charlton was not shrieking his fears out. He was calling cheerful words of hope across the quaking morass of sand that separated them. There was no use in making a gibbering idiot of one's self. Beaudry clenched his jaws tight on the cries that rose like a thermometer of terror in his throat.
With every ounce of strength that was in him he fought, meanwhile, for the life of the man at the other end of the rope. Before Beulah reached Charlton, Roy was in deeper than his knees. He shut his eyes and pulled like a machine. It seemed an eternity before Charlton called to him to let go the rope.
A new phase of his danger seared like a flame across the brain of Beaudry. He had dragged himself from a perpendicular position. As soon as he let loose of the rope he would begin to sink forward. This would reduce materially the time before his face would sink into the sand.
Why not hang on and let the horse drag him out, too? He had as much right to live as Charlton. Was there any law of justice that forced him to throw away the rope that was his only hope?
But he knew the tough little cowpony could not drag two heavy men from the quicksands at the same time. If he held tight, Charlton, too, would be sacrificed. His fingers opened.
Roy watched the struggle on the opposite side of the wash. Charlton was in almost to his arm-pits. The horse braced its feet and pulled. Beulah, astride the saddle, urged it to the task again and again. At first by imperceptible gains, then inch by inch, the man was dragged from the mire that fought with a thousand clinging tentacles for its prey.
Not till Charlton was safe on the bank did Beulah realize the peril of Beaudry. One glance across the river showed her that he was sliding face downward to a shifting grave. With an anguished little cry she released the rope from Charlton's body, flung herself to the saddle again, and dashed down the bank of the creek.
Roy lost count of time. His face was sliding down toward the sand. Soon his mouth and nostrils would be stopped. He believed that it was a question of minutes with him.
Came the swift pounding of hoofs and Beulah's clear, ringing voice.
"Hold your hands straight out, Roy."
His back was toward her, so that he did not see what she meant to do. But he obeyed blindly. With a wrench first one hand and then the other came free from the sand and wavered into the air heavily. A rope sang, dropped over his arms and head, tightened with a jerk around his waist.
Two monsters seemed to be trying to tear him in two. A savage wrench of pain went through him jaggedly. At short intervals this was repeated.
In spite of the suction of the muddy sand he felt its clutch giving way. It loosened a little here, a little there. His body began to move. After a long tug he came out at last with a rush. But he left his high cowpuncher's boots behind. They remained buried out of sight in the sand. He had literally been dragged out of them.
Roy felt himself pulled shoreward. From across the quicksands came Charlton's whoop of triumph. Presently Beulah was stooping over him with tender little cries of woe and joy.
He looked at her with a wan, tired smile. "I didn't think you'd make it in time." In a moment he added: "I was horribly afraid. God, it was awful!"
"Of course. Who wouldn't have been?" She dismissed his confession as of no importance. "But it's all over now. I want to hug you tight to make sure you're here, boy."
"There's no law against it," he said with feeble humor.
"No, but—" With a queer little laugh she glanced across the river toward her former lover. "I don't think I had better."
Charlton joined them a few minutes later. He went straight to Roy and offered his hand.
"The feud stuff is off, Mr. Beaudry. Beulah will tell you that I started in to make you trouble. Well, there's nothing doing in that line. I can't fight the man who saved my life at the risk of his own."
"Oh, well!" Roy blushed. "I just threw you a rope."
"You bogged down some," Charlton returned dryly. "I've known men who would have thought several times before throwing that rope from where you did. They would have hated to lose their boots."
Beulah's eyes shone. "Oh, Brad, I'm so glad. I do want you two to be friends."
"Do you?" As he looked at her, the eyes of the young hillman softened. He guessed pretty accurately the state of her feelings. Beaudry had won and he had lost. Well, he was going to be a good loser this time. "What you want goes with me this time, Boots. The way you yanked me out of the sinks was painful, but thorough. I'll be a friend to Mr. Beaudry if he is of the same opinion as you. And I'll dance at his wedding when it comes off."
She cried out at that, but Charlton noticed that she made no denial. Neither did Roy. He confined his remarks to the previous question, and said that he would be very glad of Charlton's friendship.
"Good enough. Then I reckon we better light out for camp with the glad news that Beulah has been found. You can tell me all about it on the way," the hillman suggested.
Beulah dropped from her horse ten minutes later into the arms of Ned Rutherford. Quite unexpectedly to himself, that young man found himself filled with emotion. He caught his sister in his arms and held her as if he never intended to let the sobbing girl go. His own voice was not at all steady.
"Boots—Boots . . . Honey-bug . . . Where you-all been?" he asked, choking up suddenly.
Pat Ryan Evens an Old Score
Dingwell, the coffee-pot in one hand and a tin cup in the other, hailed his partner cheerfully. "Come over here, son, and tell me who you traded yore boots to."
"You and Brad been taking a mud bath, Mr. Beaudry?" asked one of the Lazy Double D riders.
Roy told them, with reservations, the story of the past twenty-four hours. Dave listened, an indifferent manner covering a quick interest. His young friend had done for himself a good stroke of business. There could no longer be any question of the attitude of the Rutherfords toward him, since he had been of so great service to Beulah. Charlton had renounced his enmity, the ground cut from beneath his feet. Word had reached camp only an hour before of the death of Tighe. This left of Beaudry's foes only Hart, who did not really count, and Dan Meldrum, at the present moment facing starvation in a prospect hole. On the whole, it had been a surprisingly good twenty-four hours for Roy. His partner saw this, though he did not know the best thing Roy had won out of it.
"Listens fine," the old-timer commented when the young man had finished.
"Can you rustle me a pair of boots from one of the boys, Dave? Size number eight. I've got to run back up Del Oro to-day."
"Better let me go, son," Dave proposed casually.
"No. It's my job to turn the fellow loose."
"Well, see he doesn't get the drop on you. I wouldn't trust him far as I could throw a bull by the tail."
Dingwell departed to borrow the boots and young Rutherford came over to Beaudry. Out of the corner of his eye Roy observed that Beulah was talking with the little Irish puncher, Pat Ryan.
Rutherford plunged awkwardly into his thanks. His sister had made only a partial confidant of him, but he knew that she was under obligations to Beaudry for the rescue from Meldrum. The girl had not dared tell her brother that the outlaw was still within his reach. She knew how impulsively his anger would move to swift action.
"We Rutherfords ain't liable to forget this, Mr. Beaudry. Dad has been 'most crazy since Boots disappeared. He'll sure want to thank you himself soon as he gets a chance," blurted Ned.
"I happened to be the lucky one to find her; that's all," Roy depreciated.
"Sure. I understand. But you did find her. That's the point. Dad won't rest easy till he's seen you. I'm going to take sis right home with me. Can't you come along?"
Roy wished he could, but it happened that he had other fish to fry. He shook his head reluctantly.
Dingwell returned with a pair of high-heeled cowpuncher's boots. "Try these on, son. They belong to Dusty. The lazy hobo wasn't up yet. If they fit you, he'll ride back to the ranch in his socks."
After stamping about in the boots to test them, Roy decided that they would do. "They fit like a coat of paint," he said.
"Say, son, I'm going to hit the trail with you on that little jaunt you mentioned," his partner announced definitely.
Roy was glad. He had of late been fed to repletion with adventure. He did not want any more, and with Dingwell along he was not likely to meet it. Already he had observed that adventures generally do not come to the adventurous, but to the ignorant and the incompetent. Dave moved with a smiling confidence along rough trails that would have worried his inexperienced partner. To the old-timer these difficulties were not dangers at all, because he knew how to meet them easily.
They rode up Del Oro by the same route Roy and Beulah had followed the previous night. Before noon they were close to the prospect hole where Roy had left the rustler. The sound of voices brought them up in their tracks.
They listened. A whine was in one voice; in the other was crisp command.
"Looks like some one done beat us to it," drawled Dingwell. "We'll move on and see what's doing."
They topped the brow of a hill.
A bow-legged little man with his back to them was facing Dan Meldrum.
"I'm going along with yez as far as the border. You'll keep moving lively till ye hit the hacienda of old Porf. Diaz. And you'll stay there. Mind that now, Dan. Don't—"
The ex-convict broke in with the howl of a trapped wolf. "You've lied to me. You brought yore friends to kill me."
The six-gun of the bad man blazed once—twice. In answer the revolver of the bandy-legged puncher barked out, fired from the hip. Meldrum staggered, stumbled, pitched forward into the pit. The man who had killed him walked slowly forward to the edge and looked down. He stood poised for another shot if one should prove necessary.
Dave joined him.
"He's dead as a stuck shote, Pat," the cattleman said gravely.
Ryan nodded. "You saw he fired first, Dave."
"Yes." After a moment he added: "You've saved the hangman a job, Pat. I don't know anybody Washington County could spare better. There'll be no complaint, I reckon."
The little Irishman shook his head. "That would go fine if you had shot him, Dave, or if Mr. Beaudry here had. But with me it's different. I've been sivinteen years living down a reputation as a hellion. This ain't going to do me any good. Folks will say it was a case of one bad man wiping out another. They'll say I've gone back to being a gunman. I'll be in bad sure as taxes."
Dingwell looked at him, an idea dawning in his mind. Why not keep from the public the name of the man who had shot Meldrum? The position of the wound and the revolver clenched in the dead man's hand would show he had come to his end in fair fight. The three of them might sign a statement to the effect that one of them had killed the fellow in open battle. The doubt as to which one would stimulate general interest. No doubt the gossips would settle on Beaudry as the one who had done it. This would still further enhance his reputation as a good man with whom not to pick trouble.
"Suits me if it does Roy," the cattleman said, speaking his thoughts aloud. "How about it, son? Pat is right. This will hurt him, but it wouldn't hurt you or me a bit. Say the word and all three of us will refuse to tell which one shot Meldrum."
"I'm willing," Roy agreed. "And I've been looking up ancient history, Mr. Ryan. I don't think you were as bad as you painted yourself to me once. I'm ready to shake hands with you whenever you like."
The little Irishman flushed. He shook hands with shining eyes.
"That's why I was tickled when Miss Beulah asked me to come up and turn loose that coyote. It's a God's truth that I hoped he'd fight. I wanted to do you a good bit of wolf-killing if I could. And I've done it . . . and I'm not sorry. He had it coming if iver a man had."
"Did you say that Beulah Rutherford sent you up here?" asked Roy.
"She asked me to come. Yis."
"I can only guess her reasons. She didn't want you to come and she couldn't ask Ned for fear he would gun the fellow. So she just picked on a red-headed runt of an Irishman."
"While we're so close, let's ride across to Huerfano Park," suggested Dave. "I haven't been there in twenty years."
That suited Roy exactly. As they rode across the hills his mind was full of Beulah. She had sent Ryan up so that he could get Meldrum away before her lover arrived. Was it because she was afraid Roy might show the white feather? Or was it because she feared for his safety? He wished he knew.
A New Leaf
Hal Rutherford himself met the three riders as they drew up at the horse ranch. He asked no verbal questions, but his eyes ranged curiously from one to another.
"'Light, gentlemen. I been wanting to see you especially, Mr. Beaudry," he said.
"I reckon you know where we've been, Hal," answered Dave after he had dismounted.
"We got a little news for public circulation. You can pass the word among the boys. Dan Meldrum was shot three hours ago beside the pit where Miss Beulah was imprisoned. His body is in the prospect hole now. You might send some lads with spades to bury him."
"One of you shot him."
"You done guessed it, Hal. One of us helped him out of that pit intending to see he hit the dust to Mexico. Dan was loaded to the guards with suspicions. He chose to make it a gun-play. Fired twice. The one of us that took him out of the pit fired back and dropped him first crack. All of us saw the affair. It happened just as I've told you."
"But which of you—?"
"That's the only point we can't remember. It was one of us, but we've forgotten which one."
"Suits me if it does you. I'll thank all three of you, then." Rutherford cleared his throat and plunged on. "Boys, to-day kinder makes an epoch in Huerfano Park. Jess Tighe died yesterday and Dan Meldrum to-day. They were both bad citizens. There were others of us that were bad citizens, too. Well, it's right-about face for us. We travel broad trails from now on. Right now the park starts in to make a new record for itself."
Dave offered his hand, and with it went the warm smile that made him the most popular man in Washington County. "Listens fine, Hal. I sure am glad to hear you say so."
"I niver had any kick against the Rutherfords. They were open and aboveboard, anyhow, in all their diviltry," contributed Ryan to the pact of peace.
Nobody looked at Roy, but he felt the weight of their thoughts. All four of them bore in mind the death of John Beaudry. His son spoke quietly.
"Mr. Rutherford, I've been thinking of my father a good deal these last few days. I want to do as he would have me do about this thing. I'm not going to chop my words. He gave his life to bring law and order into this country, The men who killed him were guilty of murder. That's an ugly word, but it's the true one."
The grim face of the big hillman did not twitch. "I'll take the word from you. Go on."
"But I've been thinking more and more that he would want me to forget that. Tighe and Meldrum are gone. Sheriff Beaudry worked for the good of the community. That is all he asked. It is for the best interest of Washington County that we bury the past. If you say so, I'll shake hands on that and we'll all face to the future. Just as you say."
Dingwell grinned. "Hooray! Big Chief Dave will now make oration. You've got the right idea, son. I knew Jack Beaudry. There wasn't an atom of revenge in his game body. His advice would have been to shake hands. That's mine, too."
The hillman and Roy followed it.
Upon the porch a young woman appeared.
"I've written those letters for you, dad," she called.
Roy deserted the peace conference at once and joined her.
"Oh! I didn't know it was you," she cried. "I'm so glad you came this way. Was it . . . all right?"
"Right as the wheat. Why did you send Pat up Del Oro?"
She looked at him with eyes incredibly kind and shy. "Because I . . . didn't want to run any chance of losing my new beau."
"Are you sure that was your only reason?"
"Certain sure. I didn't trust Meldrum, and . . . I thought you had taken chances enough with him. So I gave Mr. Ryan an opportunity."
"He took it," her lover answered gravely.
She glanced at him quickly. "You mean—?"
"Never mind what I mean now. We've more important things to talk about. I haven't seen you for eight hours, and thirty-three minutes."
Rutherford turned his guests over to Ned, who led the way to the stable. The ranchman joined the lovers. He put an arm around Beulah.
"Boots has done told me about you two, Mr. Beaudry. I'm eternally grateful to you for bringing back my little girl to me, and if you all feel right sure you care for each other I've got nothing to say but 'God bless you.' You're a white man. You're decent. I believe you'll be kind to her."
"I'm going to try to the best I know, Mr. Rutherford."
"You'd better, young man." The big rancher swallowed a lump in his throat and passed to another phase of the subject. "Boots was telling me about how it kinder stuck in yore craw to marry the daughter of Hal Rutherford, seeing as how things happened the way they did. Well, I'm going to relieve yore mind. She's the one that has got the forgiving to do, not you. She knew it all the time, too, but she didn't tell it. Beulah is the daughter of my brother Anse. I took her from the arms of her dying mother when she was a little trick that couldn't crawl. She's not the daughter of the man that shot yore father. She's the daughter of the man yore father shot."
"Oh!" gasped Roy.
Beulah went to her lover arrow-swift.
"My dear . . . my dear! What does it matter now? Dad says my father was killed in fair fight. He had set himself against the law. It took his life. Your father didn't."
"Oh, his was the hand. But he was sheriff. He did only his duty. That's true, isn't it, dad?"
Her strong young hands gripped tightly those of her lover. She looked proudly into his eyes with that little flare of feminine ferocity in hers.
"I won't have it any other way, Roy Beaudry. You're the man I'm going to marry, the man who is going to be the father of my children if God gives me any. No blood stands between us—nothing but the memory of brave men who misunderstood each other and were hurt because of it. Our marriage puts an end forever to even the memory of the wrong they did each other. That is the way it is to me—and that's the way it has got to be to you, too."
Roy laughed softly, tears in his eyes. As he looked at her eager young beauty the hot life in his pulses throbbed. He snatched her to him with an ardor as savage as her own.
OF THE BEGINNING