Chapter 17. Hidden Valley
 

Across the desert into the hills, where the sun was setting in a great splash of crimson in the saddle between two distant peaks, a bunch of cows trailed heavily. Their tongues hung out and they panted for water, stretching their necks piteously to low now and again. For the heat of an Arizona summer was on the baked land and in the air that palpitated above it.

But the end of the journey was at hand and the cowpuncher in charge of the drive relaxed in the saddle after the easy fashion of the vaquero when he is under no tension. He did not any longer cast swift, anxious glances behind him to make sure no pursuit was in sight. For he had reached safety. He knew the 'Open sesame' to that rock wall which rose sheer in front of him. Straight for it he and his companion took their gather, swinging the cattle adroitly round a great slab which concealed a gateway to the secret canon. Half a mile up this defile lay what was called Hidden Valley, an inaccessible retreat known only to those who frequented it for nefarious purposes.

It was as the man in charge circled round to head the lead cows in that a faint voice carried to him. He stopped, listening. It came again, a dry, parched call for help that had no hope in it. He wheeled his pony as on a half dollar, and two minutes later caught sight of an exhausted figure leaning against a cottonwood. He needed no second guess to surmise that she was lost and had been wandering over the sandy desert through the hot day. With a shout, he loped toward her, and had his water bottle at her lips before she had recovered from her glad surprise at sight of him.

"You'll feel better now," he soothed. "How long you been lost, ma'am?"

"Since ten this morning. I came with my aunt to gather poppies, and somehow I got separated from her and the rig. These hills look so alike. I must have got turned round and mistaken one for another."

"You have to be awful careful here. Some one ought to have told you," he said indignantly.

"Oh, they told me, but of course I knew best," she replied, with quick scorn of her own self-sufficiency.

"Well, it's all right now," the cowpuncher told her cheerfully. He would not for a thousand dollars have told her how near it had come to being all wrong, how her life had probably depended upon that faint wafted call of hers.

He put her on his horse and led it forward to the spot where the cattle waited at the gateway. Not until they came full upon them did he remember that it was dangerous for strange young women to see him with those cattle and at the gateway to the Hidden canon.

"They are my uncle's cattle. I could tell the brand anywhere. Are you one of his riders? Are we close to the Rocking Chair Ranch?" she cried.

He flung a quick glance at her. "Not very close. Are you from the Rocking Chair?"

"Yes. I'm Mr. Mackenzie's niece."

"Major Mackenzie's daughter?" demanded the man quickly.

"Yes." She said it with a touch of annoyance, for he looked at her as a man does who has heard of her before. She knew that the story had been bruited far and wide of how she had passed through the hands of the train robbers carrying thirty thousand dollars on her person. She had no doubt that it was in this connection her rescuer had heard of her.

He drew off to one side and called his companion to him.

"Hardman, you ride up to the ranch and tell Leroy I've just found Miss Mackenzie wandering around on the desert, lost. Ask him whether I'm to bring her up. She's played out and can't travel far, tell him."

The showman rode on his errand and the other returned to Helen.

"You better light, ma'am. We'll have to wait here a few minutes," he explained.

He helped her dismount. She did not understand why it was necessary to wait, but that was his business and not hers. Her roving eyes fell upon the cattle again.

"They are my uncle's, aren't they?"

"They were," he corrected. "Cattle change hands a good deal in this country," he added dryly.

"Then you're not one of his riders?" Her stark eyes passed over him swiftly.

"No, ma'am."

"Are we far from the Rocking Chair?"

"A right smart distance. You've been traveling, you see, for eight or nine hours."

It occurred to her that there was something elusive, something not quite frank, about the replies of this young man. Her glance raked him again and swept up the details of his person. One of them that impressed itself upon her mind was the absence of a finger on his right hand. Another was that he was a walking arsenal. This startled her, though she was not yet afraid. She relapsed into silence, to which he seemed willing to consent. Once and again her glance swept him. He looked a tough, weather-beaten Westerner, certainly not a man whom a woman need be afraid to meet alone on the plains, but the oftener she looked the more certain she became that he was not a casual puncher busy at the legitimate work of his craft.

"Do you--live near here?" she asked presently.

"I live under my hat, ma'am," he told her.

"Sometimes near here, sometimes not so near."

This told her exactly nothing.

"How far did you say it was to the Rocking Chair?"

"I didn't say."

At the sound of a horses footfall she turned, and she saw that whereas they had been two, now they were three. The newcomer was a slender, graceful man, dark and lithe, with quick, piercing eyes, set deep in the most reckless, sardonic face she had ever seen.

The man bowed, with a sweep of his hat almost derisive. "Miss Mackenzie, I believe."

She met him with level eyes that confessed no fear.

"Who are you, sir?"

"They call me Wolf Leroy."

Her heart sank. "You and he are the men that held up the Limited.''

"If we are, you are the young lady that beat us out of thirty thousand dollars. We'll collect now," he told her, with a silky smile and a glitter of white, even teeth.

"What do you mean? Do you think I carry money about with me?"

"I didn't say that. We'll put it up to your father."

"My father?"

"He'll have to raise thirty thousand dollars to redeem his daughter." He let his bold eyes show their admiration. "And she's worth every cent of it."

"Do you mean--" She read the flash of triumph in his ribald eyes and broke off. There was no need to ask him what he meant.

"That's what I mean exactly, ma'am. You're welcome to the hospitality of Hidden Valley. What's ours is yours. You're welcome to stay as long as you like, but I reckon you're not welcome to go whenever you want to--not till we get that thirty thousand."

"You talk as if he were a millionaire," she told him scornfully.

"The major's got friends that are. If it's a showdown he'll dig the dough up. I ain't a bit worried about that. His brother, Webb, will come through."

"Why should he?" She stood as straight and unbending as a young pine, courage regnant in the very poise of the fine head. "You daren't harm a hair of my head, and he knows it. For your life, you daren't."

His eyes glittered. Wolf Leroy was never a safe man to fling a challenge at. "Don't you be too sure of that, my dear. There ain't one thing on this green earth I daren't do if I set my mind to it. And your friends know it."

The other man broke in, easy and unmoved. "Hold yore hawses, cap. We got no call to be threatening this young lady. We keep her for a ransom because that's business. But she's as safe here as she would be at the Rocking Chair. She's got York Neil's word for that."

The Wolf snarled. "The word of a miscreant. That'll comfort her a heap. And York Neil's word don't always go up here."

The cowpuncher's steady eyes met him. "It'll go this time."

The girl gave her champion a quiet little nod and a low "Thank you." It was not much, but enough. For on the frontier "white men" do not war on women. Her instinct gave just the right manner of treating his help. It assumed that since he was what he was he could do no less. Moreover, it had the unexpected effect of spurring the Wolf's vanity, or something better than his vanity. She could see the battle in his face, and the passing of its evil, sinister expression.

"Beg your pardon, Miss Mackenzie. York's right. I'll add my word to his about your safety. I'm a wolf, they'll tell you. But when I give my word I keep it."

They turned and followed through the gateway the cattle which Hardman and another rider were driving up the canon. Presently the walls fell back, the gulch opened to a saucer-shaped valley in which nestled a little ranch.

Leroy indicated it with a wave of his hand. "Welcome to Hidden Valley, Miss Mackenzie," he said cynically.

"Afraid I'm likely to wear my welcome out if you keep me here until my father raises thirty thousand dollars," she said lightly.

"Don't you worry any about that. We need the refining influences of ladies' society here. I can see York's a heap improved already. Just to teach us manners you're worth your board and keep." Then hardily, with a sweeping gesture toward the weary cattle: "Besides, your uncle has sent up a contribution to help keep you while you visit with us."

York laughed. "He sent it, but he didn't know he was sending it."

Leroy surrendered his room to Miss Mackenzie and put at her service the old Mexican woman who cooked for him. She was a silent, taciturn creature, as wrinkled as leather parchment and about as handsome, but Alice found safety in the very knowledge of the presence of another woman in the valley. She was among robbers and cutthroats, but old Juanita lent at least a touch of domesticity to a situation that would otherwise have been impossible. The girl was very uneasy in her mind. A cold dread filled her heart, a fear that was a good deal less than panic-terror, however. For she trusted the man Neil even as she distrusted his captain. Miscreant he had let himself be called, and doubtless was, but she knew no harm could befall her from his companions while he was alive to prevent it. A reassurance of this came to her that evening in the fragment of a conversation she overheard. They were passing her window which she had raised on account of the heat when the low voices of two men came to her.

"I tell you I'm not going, Leroy. Send Hardman," one said.

"Are you running this outfit, or am I, Neil?"

"You are. But I gave her my word. That's all there's to it."

Alice was aware that they had stopped and were facing each other tensely.

"Go slow, York. I gave her my word, too. Do you think I'm allowing to break it while you're away?"

"No, I don't. Look here, Phil. I'm not looking for trouble. You're major-domo of this outfit What you say goes--except about this girl. I'm a white man, if I'm a scoundrel."

"And I'm not?"

"I tell you I'm not sayin' that," the other answered doggedly.

"You're hinting it awful loud. I stand for it this time, York, but never again. You butt in once more and you better reach for your hardware simultaneous. Stick a pin in that."

They had moved on again, and she did not hear Neil's answer. Nevertheless, she was comforted to know she had one friend among these desperate outlaws, and that comfort gave her at least an hour or two of broken, nappy sleep.

In the morning when she had dressed she found her room door unlocked, and she stepped outside into the sunshine. York Neil was sitting on the porch at work on a broken spur strap. Looking up, he nodded a casual good morning. But she knew why he was there, and gratitude welled up in her heart. Not a young woman who gave way to every impulse, she yielded to one now, and shook hands with him. Their eyes met for a moment and he knew she was thanking him.

An eye derisive witnessed the handshake. "An alliance against the teeth of the wolf, I'll bet. Good mo'ning, Miss Mackenzie," drawled Leroy.

"Good morning," she answered quietly, her hands behind her.

"Sleep well?"

"Would you expect me to?"

"Why not, with York here doing the virgin-knight act outside your door?"

Her puzzled eyes discovered that Neil's face was one blush of embarrassment.

"He slept here on the po'ch," explained Leroy, amused. "It's a great fad, this outdoor sleeping. The doctors recommend it strong for sick people. You wouldn't think to look at him York was sick. He looks plumb husky. But looks are right deceptive. It's a fact, Miss Mackenzie, that he was so sick last night I wasn't dead sure he'd live till mo'ning."

The eyes of the men met like rapiers. Neil said nothing, and Leroy dropped him from his mind as if he were a trifle and devoted his attention to Alice.

"Breakfast is ready, Miss Mackenzie. This way, please."

The outlaw led her to the dining room, where the young woman met a fresh surprise. The table was white with immaculate linen and shone with silver. She sat down to breakfast food with cream, followed by quail on toast, bacon and eggs, and really good coffee. Moreover, she discovered that this terror of the border knew how to handle his knife and fork, was not deficient in the little niceties of table decorum. He talked, and talked well, ignoring, like a perfect host, the relation that existed between them. They sat opposite each other and ate alone, waited upon by the Mexican woman. Alice wondered if he kept solitary state when she was not there or ate with the other men.

It was evening before Hardman returned from the mission upon which he had been sent in place of the obstinate Neil. He reported at once to Leroy, who came smilingly to the place where she was sitting on the porch to tell her his news.

"Webb Mackenzie's going to raise that thirty thousand, all right. He's promised to raise it inside of three days," he told her triumphantly.

"And shall I have to stay here three whole days?"

He looked with half-shut, smoldering eyes at her slender exquisiteness, compact of a strange charm that was both well-bred and gypsyish. There was a scarce-veiled passion in his gaze that troubled her. More than once that day she had caught it.

"Three days ain't so long. I could stand three months of you and wish for more," he told her.

Lightly she turned the subject, but not without a chill of fear. Three days was a long time. Much might happen if this wolf slipped the leash of his civilization.

It was next day that an incident occurred which was to affect the course of events more than she could guess at the time. A bunch of wild hill steers had been driven down by Hardman, Reilly, and Neil in the afternoon and were inclosed in the corral with the cows from the Rocking Chair Ranch. Just before sunset Leroy, who had been away all day, returned and sauntered over from the stable to join Alice. It struck the girl from his flushed appearance that he had been drinking. In his eye she found a wild devil of lawlessness that set her heart pounding. If Neil and he clashed now there would be murder done. Of that she felt sure.

That she set herself to humor the Wolf's whims was no more for her own safety than for that of the man who had been her friend. She curbed her fears, clamped down her startled maiden modesty, parried his advances with light words and gay smiles. Once Neil passed, and his eyes asked a question. She shook her head, unnoticed by Leroy. She would fight her own battle as long as she could. It was to divert him that she proposed they go down to the corral and look at the wild cattle the men had driven down. She told him she had heard a great deal about them, but had never seen any. If he would go with her she would like to look at them.

The outlaw was instantly at her service, and they sauntered across. In her hand the girl carried a closed umbrella she had been using to keep off the sun.

They stood at the gate of the corral looking at the long-legged, shaggy creatures, as wild and as active almost as hill deer. On horseback one could pass to and fro among them without danger, but in a closed corral a man on foot would have taken a chance. Nobody knew this better than Leroy. But the liquor was still in his head, and even when sober he was reckless beyond other men.

"They need water," he said, and with that opened the gate and started for the windmill.

He sauntered carelessly across, with never a glance at the dangerous animals among which he was venturing. A great bull pawed the ground lowered its head, and made a rush at the unconscious man. Alice called to him to look out, then whipped open the gate and ran after him. Leroy turned, and, in a flash, saw that which for an instant filled him with a deadly paralysis. Between him and the bull, directly in the path of its rush, stood this slender girl, defenseless.

Even as his revolver flashed out from the scabbard the outlaw knew he was too late to save her, for she stood in such a position that he could not hit a vital spot. Suddenly her umbrella opened in the face of the animal. frightened, it set its feet wide and slithered to a halt so close to her that its chorus pierced the silk of the umbrella. With one hand Leroy swept the girl behind him; with the other he pumped three bullets into the forehead of the bull. Without a groan it keeled over, dead before it reached the ground.

Alice leaned against the iron support of the windmill. She was so white that the man expected her to sink down. One glance showed him other cattle pawing the ground angrily.

"Come!" he ordered, and, putting an arm round her waist, he ran with her to the gate. Yet a moment, and they were through in safety.

She leaned against him helpless for an instant before she had strength to disengage herself. "Thank you. I'm all right now."

"I thought you were going to faint," he explained.

She nodded. "I nearly did."

His face was colorless. "You saved my life."

"Then we're quits, for you saved mine," she answered, with a shaken attempt at a smile.

He shook his head. "That's not the same at all. I had to do that, and there was no risk to it. But you chose to save me, to risk your life for mine."

She saw that he was greatly moved, and that his emotion had swept away the effects of the liquid as a fresh breeze does a fog.

"I didn't know I was risking my life. I saw you didn't see."

"I didn't think there was a woman alive had the pluck to do it--and for me, your enemy. That what you count me, isn't it--an enemy?"

"I don't know. I can't quite think of you as friend, can I?"

"And yet I would have protected you from any danger at any cost."

"Except the danger of yourself," she said, in low voice, meeting him eye to eye.

He accepted her correction with a groan, an wheeled away, leaning his arms on the corral fence and looking away to that saddle between the peak which still glowed with sunset light.

"I haven't met a woman of your kind before in ten years," he said presently. "I've lived on you looks, your motions, the inflections of your voice. I suppose I've been starved for that sort of thing and didn't know it till you came. It's been like a glimpse of heaven to me." He laughed bitterly: and went on: "Of course, I had to take to drinking and let you see the devil I am. When I'm sober you would be as safe with me as with York. But the excitement of meeting you-- I have to ride my emotions to death so as to drain them to the uttermost. Drink stimulates the imagination, and I drank."

"I'm sorry."

Her voice said more than the words. He looked at her curiously. "You're only a girl. What do you know about men of my sort? You have been wrappered and sheltered all your life. And yet you understand me better than any of the people I meet. All my life I have fought with myself. I might have been a gentleman and I'm only a wolf. My appetites and passions, stronger than myself dragged me down. It was Kismet, the destiny ordained for me from my birth."

"Isn't there always hope for a man who knows his weaknesses and fights against them?" she asked timidly.

"No, there is not," came the harsh answer. "Besides, I don't fight. I yield to mine. Enough of that. It is you we have to consider, not me. You have saved my life, and I have got to pay the debt."

"I didn't think who you were," her honesty compelled her to say.

"That doesn't matter. you did it. I'm going to take you back to your father and straight as I can."

Her eyes lit. "Without a ransom?"

"Yes."

"You pay your debts like a gentleman, sir."

"I'm not coyote all through."

She could only ignore the hunger that stared out of his eyes for her. "What about your friends? Will they let me go?"

"They'll do as I say. What kicking they do will be done mostly in private, and when they're away from me."

"I don't want to make trouble for you."

"You won't make trouble for me. If there's any trouble it Will be for them," he said grimly.

Neither of them made any motion toward the house. The girl felt a strange impulse of tenderness toward this man who had traveled so fast the road to destruction. She had seen before that deep hunger of the eyes, for she was of the type of woman that holds a strong attraction for men. It told her that he had looked in the face of his happiness too late--too late by the many years of a misspent life that had decreed inexorably the character he could no longer change.

"I am sorry," she said again. "I didn't see that in you at first. I misjudged you. One can't label men just good or bad, as the novelists used to. You have taught me that--you and Mr. Neil."

His low, sardonic laughter rippled out. "I'm bad enough. Don't make any mistake about that, Miss Mackenzie. York's different. He's just a good man gone wrong. But I'm plain miscreant."

"Oh, no," she protested.

"As bad as they make them, but not wolf clear through," he said again. "Something's happened to me to-day. It won't change me. I've gone too far for that. But some morning when you read in the papers that Wolf Leroy died with his boots on and everybody in sight registers his opinion of the deceased you'll remember one thing. He wasn't a wolf to you--not at the last."

"I'll not forget," she said, and the quick tears were in her eyes.

York Neil came toward them from the house. It was plain from his manner he had a joke up his sleeve.

"You're wanted, Phil," he announced.

"Wanted where?"

"You got a visitor in there," Neil said, with a grin and a jerk of his thumb toward the house. "Came blundering into the draw sorter accidental-like, but some curious. So I asked him if he wouldn't light and stay a while. He thought it over, and figured he would."

"Who is it?" asked Leroy.

"You go and see. I ain't giving away what your Christmas presents are. I aim to let Santa surprise you a few.

Miss Mackenzie followed the outlaw chief into the house, and over his shoulder glimpsed two men. One of them was the Irishman, Cork Reilly, and he sat with a Winchester across his knees. The other had his back toward them, but he turned as they entered, and nodded casually to the outlaw. Helen's heart jumped to her throat when she saw it was Val Collins.

The two men looked at each other steadily in a long silence. Wolf Leroy was the first to speak.

"You damn fool!" The swarthy face creased to an evil smile of derision.

"I ce'tainly do seem to butt in considerable, Mr. Leroy," admitted Collins, with an answering smile.

Leroy's square jaw set like a vise. "It won't happen again, Mr. Sheriff."

"I'd hate to gamble on that heavy," returned Collins easily. Then he caught sight of the girl's white face, and rose to his feet with outstretched hand.

"Sit down," snapped out Reilly.

"Oh, that's all right I'm shaking hands with the lady. Did you think I was inviting you to drill a hole in me, Mr. Reilly?"