Chapter 13. Bucky's First-Rate Reasons
 

How long Frances Mackenzie gave herself up to despair she never knew, but when at last she resolutely took herself in hand it seemed hours later. "Bucky told me to be brave, he told me not to lose my nerve," she repeated to herself over and over again, drawing comfort from the memory of his warm, vibrant voice. "He said he would come back, and he hates a liar. So, of course, he will come." With such argument she tried to allay her wild fears.

But on top of all her reassurances would come a swift, blinding vision of gallant Bucky being led to his death that crumpled her courage as a hammer might an empty egg shell. What was the use of her pretending all was well when at that very moment they might be murdering him? Then in her agony she would pace up and down, wringing her hands, or would beat them on the stone walls till the soft flesh was bruised and bleeding.

It was in the reaction, after one of these paroxysms of despair, that in her groping for an anchor to make fast her courage she thought of his letter.

"He said in three hours I was to read it if he didn't come back. It must be more than three hours now," she said aloud to herself, and knew a fresh dread at his prolonged absence beyond the limit he had set.

In point of fact, he had been gone less than three-quarters of an hour, but in each one of them she had lived a lifetime of pain and died many deaths.

By snatches she read her letter, a sentence or a fragment of a sentence at a time as the light served. Luckily he had left a case nearly full of matches, and one after another of them dropped, charred and burned out, before she had finished reading. After she had read it, her first love letter, she must needs go over it again, to learn by heart the sweet phrases in which he had wooed her. It was a commonplace note enough, far more neutral than the strong, virile writer who had lacked the cunning to transmit his feeling to ink and paper. But, after all, it was from him, and it told the divine message, however haltingly. No wonder she burned her little finger tips from the flame of the matches creeping nearer unheeded. No wonder she pressed it to her lips in the darkness and dreamed her happy dream in those few moments when she was lost in her love before cruel realities pressed home on her again.

"I told you, Little Curly Haid, that I had first-rate reasons for not wanting to be killed by these Mexicans. So I have, the best reasons going. But they are not ripe to tell you, and so I write them.

"I guessed your secret, little pardner, right away when I seen you in a girl's outfit. If I hadn't been blind as a bat I would have guessed it long since, for all the time my feelings were telling me mighty loud that you were the lovingest little kid Bucky had ever come across.

"I'll not leave you to guess my secret the way you did me yours, dear Curly, but right prompt I'll set down adore (with one D) and say you hit the bull's-eye that time without expecting to. But if I was saying it I would not use any French words sweetheart, but plain American. And the word would be l-o-v-e, without any D's. Now you have got the straight of it, my dear. I love you--love you--love you, from the crown of that curly hear to the soles of your little feet. What's more, you have got to love me, too, since I am,

"Your future husband,

"BUCKY O CONNOR.

"P. S.--And now, Curly, you know my first-rate reasons for not meaning to get shot up by any of these Mexican fellows."

So the letter ran, and it went to her heart directly as rain to the thirsty roots of flowers. He loved her. Whatever happened, she would always have that comfort. They might kill him, but they could not take away that. The words of an old Scotch song that Mrs. Mackenzie sang came back to her:

 "The span o' life's nae large eneugh, 
   Nor deep enough the sea, 
 Nor braid eneugh this weary warld, 
  To part my love frae me."

No, they could not part their hearts in this world or the next, and with this sad comfort she flung herself on the rough bed and sobbed. She would grieve still, but the wildness of her grief and despair was gone, scattered by the knowledge that however their troubles eventuated they were now one in heart.

She was roused after a long time by the sound of the huge key grating in the lock. Through the opened door a figure descended, and by an illuminating swing of the turnkey's lantern she saw that it was Bucky. Next moment the door had closed and they were in each other's arms. Bucky's stubborn pride, the remembrance of the riches which of a sudden had transformed his little partner into an heiress and set a high wall of separation between them, these were swept clean away on a great wave of love which took Bucky off his feet and left him breathless.

"I had almost given you up," she cried joyfully.

Again he passed his hand across her face. "You've been crying, little pardner. Were you crying on account of me?"

"On account of myself, because I was afraid I had lost you. Oh, Bucky, isn't it too good to be true?"

The ranger smiled, remembering that he had about fourteen hours to live, if the Megales faction triumphed. "Good! I should think it is. Bully! I've been famished to see Curly Haid again."

"And to know that everything is going to come out all right and that we love each other."

"That's right good hearing and most ce'tainly true on my side of it. But how do you happen to know it so sure?" he laughed gayly.

"Why, your letter, Bucky. It was the dearest letter. I love it."

"But you weren't to read it for three hours," he pretended to reprove, holding her at arm's length to laugh at her.

"Wasn't it three hours? It seemed ever so much longer."

"You little rogue, you didn't play fair." And to punish her he drew her soft, supple body to him in a close embrace, and for the first time kissed the sweet mouth that yielded itself to him.

"Tell me all about what happened to you," she bade him playfully, after speech was again in order.

"Sure." He caught her hand to lead her to the bench and she winced involuntarily.

"I burned it," she explained, adding, with a ripple of shy laughter: "When I was reading your letter. It doesn't really hurt, though."

But he had to see for himself and make much over the little blister that the flame of a match revealed to him. For they were both very much in love, and, in consequence, bubbling over with the foolishness that is the greatest inherited wisdom of the ages.

But though her lover had acquiesced so promptly to her demand for a full account of his adventures since leaving her, that young man had no intention of offering an unexpurged edition of them. It was his hope that O'Halloran would storm the prison during the night and effect a rescue. If so, good; if not, there was no need of her knowing that for them the new day would usher in fresh sorrow. So he gave her an account of his trial and its details, told her how he had been convicted, and how Colonel Onate had fought warily to get the sentence of execution postponed in order to give their friends a chance to rescue them.

"When Megales remanded me to prison I wanted to let out an Arizona yell, Curly. It sure seemed too good to be true."

"But he may want the sentence carried out some time, if he changes his mind. Maybe in a week or two he may take a notion that " She stopped, plainly sobered by the fear that the good news of his return might not be final.

"We won't cross that bridge till we come to it. You don't suppose our friends are going to sit down and fold their hands, do you? Not if I've got Mike O'Halloran and young Valdez sized up right. Fur is going to begin to fly pretty soon in this man's country. But it's up to us to help all we can, and I reckon we'll begin by taking a preliminary survey of this wickiup."

Wickiup was distinctly good, since the word is used to apply to a frail Indian hut, and this cell was nothing less than a tomb built in the solid rock by blowing out a chamber with dynamite and covering the front with a solid sheet of iron, into which a door fitted. It did not take a very long investigation to prove to Bucky that escape was impossible by any exit except the door, which meant the same thing as impossible at all under present conditions. Yet he did not yield to this opinion without going over every inch of the walls many times to make sure that no secret panel opened into a tunnel from the room.

"I reckon they want to keep us, Curly. Mr. Megales has sure got us real safe this time. I'd be plumb discouraged about breaking jail out of this cage. It's ce'tainly us to stay hitched a while."

About dark tortillas and frijoles were brought down to them by the facetious turnkey, who was accompanied as usual by two guards.

"Why don't my little birdies sing?" he asked, with a wink at the soldiers. "One of them will not do any singing after daybreak to-morrow. Ho, ho, my larks! Tune up, tune up!"

"What do you mean about one not singing after daybreak?" asked the girl, with eyes dilating.

"What! Hasn't he told you? Senor the ranger is to be hanged at the dawn unless he finds his tongue for Governor Megales. Ho, ho! Our birdie must speak even if he doesn't sing." And with that as a parting shot the man clanged the door to after him and locked it.

"You never told me, Bucky. You have been trying to deceive me," she groaned.

He shrugged his shoulders. "What was the use, girlie? I knew it would worry you, and do no good. Better let you sleep in peace, I thought."

"While you kept watch alone and waited through the long night. Oh, Bucky!" She crept close to him and put her arms around his neck, holding him tight, as if in the hope that she could keep him against the untoward fate that was reaching for him. "Oh, Bucky, if I could only die for you!"

"Don't give up, little friend. I don't. Somehow I'll slip out, and then you'll have to live for me and not die for me."

"What is it that the governor wants you to say that you won't?"

"Oh, he wants me to sell our friends. I told him to go climb a giant cactus."

"Of course you couldn't do that," she sighed regretfully.

He laughed. "Well, hardly, and call myself a white man."

"But--" She blanched at the alternative. "Oh, Bucky, we must do something. We must-- we must."

"It ain't so bad as it looks, honey. You want to remember that Mike O'Halloran is on deck. What's the matter with him knocking out a home run and bringing us both in. I put a heap of confidence in that red-haided Irishman," he answered cheerfully.

"You say that just to--to give me courage. You don't really think he can do anything," she said wanly.

"That's just what I think, Curly. Some men have a way of getting things done. When you look at O'Halloran you feel this, the same as you do when you look at Val Collins. Oh, he'll get us out all right. I've been in several tighter holes than this one." His mention of Collins suggested a diversion, and he took up a less distressing theme lightly. "Wonder what Val is doing at this precise moment. I'll bet he's beginning to make things warm for Wolf Leroy's bunch of miscreants. We'll have the robbers of the Limited behind the bars within two weeks now, or I miss my guess."

He had succeeded in diverting her attention better than he had dared to hope. Her big eyes fixed on his much as if he had raised for her some forgotten spectre.

"That's another thing I must tell you. I didn't think to before. But I want you to know all about me now. Don't think me bad, Bucky. I'm only a girl. I couldn't help myself," she pleaded.

"What is it you have done that is so awful?" he smiled, and went to gather her into his arms.

She stayed him with a gesture of her hand. "No, not yet. Mebbe after you know you won't want to. I was one of the robbers of the Limited."

"You--what!" he exclaimed, for once struck dumb with sheer amazement.

"Yes, Bucky. I expect you'll hate me now. What is it you called me--a miscreant? Well, that's what I am."

His arms slipped round her as she began to sob, and he gentled her till she could again speak. "Tell me all about it, little Curly." he said.

"I didn't go into it because I wanted to. My master made me. I don't know much about the others, except that I heard the names they called each other."

"Would you know them again if you saw them? But of course you would."

"Yes. But that's it, Bucky. I hated them all, and I was in mortal fear all the time. Still--I can't betray them. They thought I went in freely with them--all but Hardman. It wouldn't be right for me to tell what I know. I've got to make you see that, dear."

"You'll not need to argue that with me, honey. I see it. You must keep quiet. Don't tell anybody else what you've told me."

"And will they put me in the penitentiary when the rest go there?"

"Not while Bucky O'Connor is alive and kicking," he told her confidently.

But the form in which he had expressed his feeling was unfortunate. It brought them back to the menace of their situation. Neither of them could tell how long he would be alive and kicking. She flung herself into his arms and wept till she could weep no more.