Chapter 1. Enter "Bear-Trap" Collins
 

She had been aware of him from the moment of his spectacular entrance, though no slightest sign of interest manifested itself in her indolent, incurious eyes. Indeed, his abundant and picturesque area was so vivid that it would have been difficult not to feel his presence anywhere, let alone on a journey so monotonous as this was proving to be.

It had been at a water-tank, near Socorro, that the Limited, churning furiously through brown Arizona in pursuit of a lost half-hour, jarred to a sudden halt that shook sleep from the drowsy eyes of bored passengers. Through the window of her Pullman the young woman in Section 3 had glimpsed a bevy of angry train officials eddying around a sturdy figure in the center, whose strong, lean head rose confidently above the press. There was the momentary whirl of a scuffle, out of the tangle of which shot a brakeman as if propelled from a catapult. The circle parted, brushed aside by a pair of lean shoulders, muscular and broad. Yet a few moments and the owner of the shoulders led down the aisle to the vacant section opposite her a procession whose tail was composed of protesting trainmen.

"You had no right to flag the train, Sheriff Collins, and you'll have to get off; that's all there is to it," the conductor was explaining testily.

"Oh, that's all right," returned the offender with easy good nature, making himself at home in Section 4. "Tell the company to send in its bill. No use jawing about it."

"You'll have to get off, sir."

"That's right--at Tucson."

"No, sir. You'll have to get off here. I have no authority to let you ride."

"Didn't I hear you say the train was late? Don't you think you'd arrive earlier at the end of your run if your choo-choo got to puffing?"

"You'll have to get off, sir."

"I hate to disoblige," murmured the owner of the jingling spurs, the dusty corduroys, and the big, gray hat, putting his feet leisurely on the cushion in front of him. "But doesn't it occur to you that you are a man of one idea?"

"This is the Coast Limited. It doesn't stop for anybody--not even for the president of the road."

"You don't say! Well, I ce'tainly appreciate the honor you did me in stopping to take me on." His slight drawl was quite devoid of concern.

"But you had no right to flag the train. Can't you understand anything?" groaned the conductor.

"You explain it again to me, sonny. I'm surely thick in the haid," soothed the intruder, and listened with bland good-humor to the official's flow of protest.

"Well--well! Disrupted the whole transcontinental traffic, didn't I? And me so innocent, too. Now, this is how I figured it out. Here's me in a hurry to get to Tucson. Here comes your train a-foggin'--also and likewise hittin' the high spots for Tucson. Seemed like we ought to travel in company, and I was some dubious she'd forget to stop unless I flagged her. Wherefore, I aired my bandanna in the summer breeze."

"But you don't understand." The conductor began to explain anew as to a dull child. "It's against the law. You'll get into trouble."

"Put me in the calaboose, will they?"

"It's no joke."

"Well, it does seem to be worrying you," Mr. Collins conceded. "Don't mind me. Free your mind proper."

The conductor, glancing about nervously, noticed that passengers were smiling broadly. His official dignity was being chopped to mince-meat. Back came his harassed gaze to the imperturbable Collins with the brown, sun-baked face and the eyes blue and untroubled as an Arizona sky. Out of a holster attached to the sagging belt that circled the corduroy trousers above his hips gleamed the butt of a revolver. But in the last analysis the weapon of the occasion was purely a moral one. The situation was one not covered in the company's rule book, and in the absence of explicit orders the trainman felt himself unequal to that unwavering gaze and careless poise. Wherefore, he retreated, muttering threats of what the company would do.

"Now, if I had only known it was against the law. My thick haid's always roping trouble for me," the plainsman confided to the Pullman conductor, with twinkling eyes.

That official unbent. "Talking about thick heads, I'm glad my porter has one. If it weren't iron-plated and copper-riveted he'd be needing a doctor now, the way you stood him on it."

"No, did I? Ce'tainly an accident. The nigger must have been in my way as I climbed into the car. Took the kink out of his hair, you say? Here, Sam!" He tossed a bill to the porter, who was rolling affronted eyes at him. "Do you reckon this is big enough to plaster your injured feelings, boy?"

The white smile flashed at him by the porter was a receipt for indemnity paid in full.

Sheriff Collins' perception of his neighbor across the aisle was more frank in its interest than the girl's had been of him. The level, fearless gaze of the outdoors West looked at her unabashed, appreciating swiftly her points as they impinged themselves upon his admiration. The long, lithe lines of the slim, supple body, the languid grace missing hauteur only because that seemed scarce worth while, the unconscious pride of self that fails to be offensive only in a young woman so well equipped with good looks as this one indubitably was the rider of the plains had appraised them all before his eyes dismissed her from his consideration and began a casual inspection of the other passengers.

Inside of half an hour he had made himself persona grata to everybody in the car except his dark-eyed neighbor across the way. That this dispenser of smiles and cigars decided to leave her out in the distribution of his attentions perhaps spoke well for his discernment. Certainly responsiveness to the geniality of casual fellow passengers did not impress Mr. Collins as likely to be an outstanding, quality in her. But with the drummer from Chicago, the young mining engineer going to Sonora, the two shy little English children just in front of him traveling to meet their father in California, he found intuitively common ground of interest. Even Major Mackenzie, the engineer in charge of the large irrigation project being built by a company in southern Arizona, relaxed at one of the plainsman's humorous tales.

It was after Collins had half-depopulated the car by leading the more jovial spirits back in search of liquid refreshments that an urbane clergyman, now of Boston but formerly of Pekin, Illinois, professedly much interested in the sheriff's touch-and-go manner as presumably quite characteristic of the West, dropped into the vacant seat beside Major Mackenzie.

"And who might our energetic friend be?" he asked, with an ingratiating smile.

The young woman in front of them turned her head ever so slightly to listen.

"Val Collins is his name," said the major. "Sometimes called 'Bear-trap Collins.' He has always lived on the frontier. At least, I met him twelve years ago when he was riding mail between Aravaipa and Mesa. He was a boy then, certainly not over eighteen, but in a desperate fight he had killed two men who tried to hold up the mail. Cow-puncher, stage-driver, miner, trapper, sheriff, rough rider, politician--he's past master at them all."

"And why the appellation of 'Bear-trap,' may I ask?" The smack of pulpit oratory was not often missing in the edifying discourse of the Reverend Peter Melancthon Brooks.

"Well, sir, that's a story. He was trapping in the Tetons about five years ago thirty miles from the nearest ranch-house. One day, while he was setting a bear-trap, a slide of snow plunged down from the tree branches above and freed the spring, catching his hand between its jaws. With his feet and his other hand he tried to open that trap for four hours, without the slightest success. There was not one chance in a million of help from outside. In point of fact, Collins had not seen a human being for a month. There was only one thing to do, and he did it."

"And that was?"

"You probably noticed that he wears a glove over his left hand. The reason, sir, is that he has an artificial hand."

"You mean--" The Reverend Peter paused to lengthen his delicious thrill of horror.

"Yes, sir. That's just what I mean. He hacked his hand off at the wrist with his hunting-knife."

"Why, the man's a hero!" cried the clergyman, with unction.

Mackenzie flung him a disgusted look. "We don't go much on heroes out here. He's game, if that's what you mean. And able, too. Bucky O'Connor himself isn't any smarter at following a trail."

"And who is Bucky O'Connor?"

"He's the man that just ran down Fernendez. Think I'll have a smoke, sir. Care to join me?"

But the Pekin-Bostonian preferred to stay and jot down in his note-book the story of the beartrap, to be used later as a sermon illustration. This may have been the reason he did not catch the quick look that passed without the slightest flicker of the eyelids between Major Mackenzie and the young woman in Section 3. It was as if the old officer had wired her a message in some code the cipher of which was known only to them.

But the sheriff, returning at the head of his cohorts, caught it, and wondered what meaning might lie back of that swift glance. Major Mackenzie and this dark-eyed beauty posed before others as strangers, yet between them lay some freemasonry of understanding to which he had not the key.

Collins did not know that the aloofness in the eyes of Miss Wainwright--he had seen the name on her suit-case--gave way to horror when her glance fell on his gloved hand. She had a swift, shuddering vision of a grim-faced man, jaws set like a vise, hacking at his wrist with a hunting-knife. But the engaging impudence of his eye, the rollicking laughter in his voice, shut out the picture instantly.

The young man resumed his seat, and Miss Wainwright her listless inspection of the flying stretches of brown desert. Dusk was beginning to fall, and the porter presently lit the lamps. Collins bought a magazine from the newsboy and relapsed into it, but before he was well adjusted to reading the Limited pounded to a second unscheduled halt.

Instantly the magazine was thrown aside and Collins' curly head thrust out of the window. Presently the head reappeared, simultaneously with the crack of a revolver, the first of a detonating fusillade.

"Another of your impatient citizens eager to utilize the unspeakable convenience of rapid transit," suggested the clergyman, with ponderous jocosity.

"No, sir; nothing so illegal," smiled the cattleman, a whimsical light in his daredevil eyes. He leaned forward and whispered a word to the little girl in front of him, who at once led her younger brother back to his section.

"I had hoped it would prove to be more diverting experience for a tenderfoot," condescended the gentleman of the cloth.

"It's ce'tainly a pleasure to be able to gratify you, sir. You'll be right pleased to know that it is a train hold-up." He waved his hand toward the door, and at the word, as if waiting for his cue, a masked man appeared at the end of the passage with a revolver in each hand.