Chapter 19. A Villon of the Desert
 

When Alice Mackenzie looked back in after years upon the incidents connected with that ride to the Rocking Chair, it was always with a kind of glorified pride in her villain-hero. He had his moments, had this twentieth-century Villon, when he represented not unworthily the divinity in man; and this day held more than one of them. Since he was what he was, it also held as many of his black moods.

The start was delayed, owing to a cause Leroy had not foreseen. When York went, sleepy-eyed, to the corral to saddle the ponies, he found the bars into the pasture let clown, and the whole remunda kicking up its heels in a paddock large as a goodsized city. The result was that it took two hours to run up the bunch of ponies and another half-hour to cut out, rope, and saddle the three that were wanted. Throughout the process Reilly sat on the fence and scowled.

Leroy, making an end of slapping on and cinching the last saddle, wheeled suddenly on the Irishman. "What's the matter, Reilly?"

"Was I saying anything was the matter?"

"You've been looking it right hard. Ain't you man enough to say it instead of playing dirty little three-for-a-cent tricks--like letting down the corral-bars?"

Reilly flung a look at Neil that plainly demanded support, and then descended with truculent defiance from the fence.

"Who says I let down the bars? You bet I am man enough to say what I think; and if ye think I ain't got the nerve--"

His master encouraged him with ironic derision. "That's right, Reilly. Who's afraid? Cough it up and show York you're game."

"By thunder, I am game. I've got a kick coming, sorr."

"Yes?" Leroy rolled and lit a cigarette, his black eyes fixed intently on the malcontent. "Well, register it on the jump. I've got to be off."

"That's the point." The curly-headed Neil had lounged up to his comrade's support. "Why have you got to be off? We don't savvy your game, cap."

"Perhaps you would like to be major-domo of this outfit, Neil?" scoffed his chief, eying him scornfully.

"No, sir. I ain't aimin' for no such thing. But we don't like the way things are shaping. What does all this here funny business mean, anyhow?" His thumb jerked toward Collins, already mounted and waiting for Leroy to join him. "Two days ago this world wasn't big enough to hold him and you. Well, I git the drop on him, and then you begin to cotton up to him right away. Big dinner last night--champagne corks popping, I hear. What I want to know is what it means. And here's this Miss Mackenzie. She's good for a big ransom, but I don't see it ambling our way. It looks darned funny."

"That's the ticket, York," derided Leroy. "Come again. Turn your wolf loose."

"Oh! I ain't afraid to say what I think."

"I see you're not. You should try stump-speaking, my friend. There's a field fox you there."

"I'm asking you a question, Mr. Leroy."

"That's whatever," chipped in Reilly.

"Put a name to it."

"Well, I want to know what's the game, and where we come in."

"Think you're getting the double-cross?" asked Leroy pleasantly, his vigilant eyes covering them like a weapon.

"Now you're shouting. That's what I'd like right well to know. There he sits"--with another thumbjerk at Collins--"and I'm a Chink if he ain't carryin' them same two guns I took offen him, one on the train and one here the other day. I ain't sayin' it ain't all right, cap. But what I do say is--how about it?"

Leroy did some thinking out loud. "Of course I might tell you boys to go to the devil. That's my right, because you chose me to run this outfit without any advice from the rest of you. But you're such infants, I reckon I had better explain. You're always worrying those fat brains of yours with suspicions. After we stuck up the Limited you couldn't trust me to take care of the swag. Reilly here had to cook up a fool scheme for us all to hide it blindfold together. I told you straight what would happen, and it did. When Scott crossed the divide we were in a Jim Dandy of a hole. We had to have that paper of his to find the boodle. Then Hardman gets caught, and coughs up his little recipe for helping to find hidden treasure. Who gets them both? Mr. Sheriff Collins, of course. Then he comes visiting us. Not being a fool, he leaves the documents behind in a safety-deposit vault. Unless I can fix up a deal with him, Mr. Reilly's wise play buncoes us and himself out of thirty thousand dollars."

"Why don't you let him send for the papers first?"

"Because he won't do it. Threaten nothing! Collins ain't that kind of a hairpin. He'd tell us to shoot and be damned."

"So you've got it fixed with him?" demanded Neil.

"You've a head like a sheep, York," admired Leroy. "You don't need any brick-wall hints to hit you. As your think-tank has guessed, I have come to an understanding with Collins."

"But the gyurl--I allow the old major would come down with a right smart ransom."

"Wrong guess, York. I allow he would come down with a right smart posse and wipe us off the face of the earth. Collins tells me the major has sent for a couple of Apache trailers from the reservation. That means it's up to us to hike for Sonora. The only point is whether we take that buried money with us or leave it here. If I make a deal with Collins, we get it. If I don't, it's somebody else's gold-mine. Anything more the committee of investigation would like to know?" concluded Leroy, as his cold eyes raked them scornfully and came to rest on Reilly.

"Not for mine," said Neil, with an apologetic laugh. "I'm satisfied. I just wanted to know. And I guess Cork corroborates."

Reilly growled something under his breath, and turned to hulk away.

"One moment. You'll listen to me, now. You have taken the liberty to assume I was going to sell you out. I'll not stand that from any man alive. To-morrow night I'll get back from Tucson. We'll dig up the loot and divide it. And right then we quit company. You go your way and I go mine." And with that as a parting shot, Leroy turned on his heel and went direct to his horse.

Alice Mackenzie might have searched the West with a fine-tooth comb and not found elsewhere two such riders for an escort as fenced her that day. Physically they were a pair of superb animals, each perfect after his fashion. If the fair-haired giant, with his lean, broad shoulders and rippling flow of muscles, bulked more strikingly in a display of sheer strength, the sinewy, tigerish grace of the dark Apollo left nothing to be desired to the eye. Both of them had been brought up in the saddle, and each was fit to the minute for any emergency likely to appear.

But on this pleasant morning no test of their power seemed likely to arise, and she could study them at her ease without hindrance. She had never seen Leroy look more the vagabond enthroned. For dress, he wore the common equipment of Cattleland--jingling spurs, fringed chaps, leather cuffs, gray shirt, with kerchief knotted loosely at the neck, and revolver ready to his hand. But he carried them with an air, an inimitable grace, that marked him for a prince among his fellows. Something of the kind she hinted to him in jesting paradoxical fashion, making an attempt to win from his sardonic gloom one of his quick, flashing smiles.

He countered by telling her what he had heard York say to Reilly of her. "She's a princess, Cork," York had said. "Makes my Epitaph gyurl look like a chromo beside her. Somehow, when she looks at a fellow, he feels like a whitewashed nigger."

All of them laughed at that, but both Leroy and the sheriff tried to banter her by insisting that they knew exactly what York meant.

"You can be very splendid when you want to give a man that whitewashed feeling; he isn't right sure whether he's on the map or not," reproached the train-robber.

She laughed in the slow, indolent way she had, taking the straw hat from her dark head to catch better the faint breath of wind that was soughing across the plains.

"I didn't know I was so terrible. I don't think yon ever had any awe of anybody, Mr. Leroy." Her soft cheek flushed in unexpected memory of that moment when he had brushed aside all her maiden reserves and ravished mad kisses from her. "And Mr. Collins is big enough to take care of himself," she added hastily, to banish the unwelcome recollection.

Collins, with his eyes on the light-shot waves that crowned her vivid face, wondered whether he was or not. If she had been a woman to desire in the queenly, half-insolent indifference of manner with which she had first met him, how much more of charm lay in this piquant gaiety, in the warm sweetness of her softer and more pliant mood! It seemed to him she had the gift of comradeship to perfection.

They unsaddled and ate lunch in the shade of the live-oaks at El Dorado Springs, which used to be a much-frequented watering-hole in the days when Camp Grant thrived and mule-skinners freighted supplies in to feed Uncle Sam's pets. Two hours later they stopped again at the edge of the Santa Cruz wash, two miles from the Rocking Chair Ranch.

It was while they were resaddling that Collins caught sight of a cloud of dust a mile or two away. He unslung his field-glasses, and looked long at the approaching dust-swirl. Presently he handed the binoculars to Leroy.

"Five of them; and that round-bellied Papago pony in front belongs to Sheriff Forbes, or I'm away wrong."

Leroy lowered the glasses, after a long, unflurried inspection. "Looks that way to me. Expect I'd better be burning the wind."

In a few sentences he and Collins arranged a meeting for next day up in the hills. He trailed his spurs through the dust toward Alice Mackenzie, and offered her his brown hand and wistful smile irresistible. "Good-by. This is where you get quit of me for good."

"Oh, I hope not," she told him impulsively. "We must always be friends."

He laughed ruefully. "Your father wouldn't indorse those unwise sentiments, I reckon--and I'd hate to bet your husband would," he added audaciously, with a glance at Collins. "But I love to hear you say it, even though we never could be. You're a right game, stanch little pardner. I'll back that opinion with the lid off."

"You should be a good judge of those qualities. I'm only sorry you don't always use them in a good cause."

He swung himself to his saddle. "Good-by."

"Good-by--till we meet again."

"And that will be never. So-long, sheriff. Tell Forbes I've got a particular engagement in the hills, but I'll be right glad to meet him when he comes."

He rode up the draw and disappeared over the brow of the hillock. She caught another glimpse of him a minute later on the summit of the hill beyond. He waved a hand at her, half-turning in his saddle as he rode.

Presently she lost him, but faintly the wind swept back to her a haunting snatch of uncouth song:

 "Oh, bury me out on the lone prairee, 
 In my narrow grave just six by three,"

Were the words drifted to her by the wind. She thought it pathetically likely he might get the wish of his song.

To Sheriff Forbes, dropping into the draw a few minutes later with his posse, Collins was a well of misinformation literally true. Yes, he had followed Miss Mackenzie's trail into the hills and found her at a mountain ranch-house. She had been there a couple of days, and was about to set out for the Rocking Chair with the owner of the place, when he arrived and volunteered to see her as far as her uncle's ranch.

"I reckon there ain't any use asking you if you seen anything of Wolf Leroy's outfit," said Forbes, a weather-beaten Westerner with a shrewd, wrinkled face.

"No, I reckon there's no use asking me that," returned Collins, with a laugh that deceptively seemed to include the older man in the joke.

"We're after them for rustling a bunch of Circle 33 cows. Well, I'll be moving. Glad you found the lady, Val. She don't look none played out from her little trek across the desert. Funny, ain't it, how she could have wandered that far and her afoot?"

The Arizona sun was setting in its accustomed blaze of splendor, when Val Collins and Alice Mackenzie put their horses again toward the ranch and the rainbow-hued west. In his contented eyes were reflected the sunshine and a serenity born of life in the wide, open spaces. They rode in silence for long, the gentle evening breeze blowing in soughs.

"Did you ever meet a man of such promises gone wrong so utterly? He might have been anything--and it has come to this, that he is hunted like a wild beast. I never saw anything so pitiful. I would give anything to save him."

He had no need to ask to whom she was referring. "Can't be done. Good qualities bulge out all over him, but they don't count for anything. 'Unstable as water.' That's what's the matter with him. He is the slave of his own whims. Hence he is only the splendid wreck of a man, full of all kinds of rich outcropping pay-ore that pinch out when you try to work them. They don't raise men gamer, but that only makes him a more dangerous foe to society. Same with his loyalty and his brilliancy. He's got a haid on him that works like they say old J. E. B. Stuart's did. He would run into a hundred traps, but somehow he always worked his men out of them. That's Leroy, too. If he had been an ordinary criminal he would have been rounded up years ago. It's his audacity, his iron nerve, his ,good horse-sense judgment that saves his skin. But he's ce'tainly up against it at last."

"You think Sheriff Forbes will capture him?"

He laughed. "I think it more likely he'll capture Forbes. But we know now where he hangs out, and who he is. He has always been a mystery till now. The mystery is solved, and unless he strikes out for Sonora, Leroy is as good as a dead man."

"A dead man?"

"Does he strike you as a man likely to be taken alive? I look to see a dramatic exit to the sound of cracking Winchesters."

"Yes, that would be like him," she confessed with shudder. "I think he was made to lead a forlorn hope. Pity it won't be one worthy of the best in him."

"I guess he does have more moments set to music than most of us, and I'll bet, too, he has hidden way in him a list of 'Thou shalt nots.' I read a book once by a man named Stevenson that was sure virgin gold. He showed how every man, no matter how low he falls, has somewhere in him a light that burns, some rag of honor for which he is still fighting I'd hate to have to judge Leroy. Some men, I reckon, have to buck against so much in themselves that even failure is a kind of success for them."

"Yet you will go out to hunt him down?" she' said, marveling at the broad sympathy of the man.

"Sure I will. My official duty is to look out for society. If something in the machine breaks loose and goes to ripping things to pieces, the engineer has to stop the damage, even if he has to smash the rod that's causing the trouble."

The ponies dropped down again into the bed of the wash, and plowed across through the heavy sand. After they had reached the solid road, Collins resumed conversation at a new point.

"It's a month and a day since I first met you Miss Mackenzie," he said, apparently apropos of nothing.

She felt her blood begin to choke. "Indeed!"

"I gave you a letter to read when I was on the train."

"A letter!" she exclaimed, in well-affected surprise.

"Did you think it was a book of poems? No, ma'am, it was a letter. You were to read it in a month. Time was up last night. I reckon you read it."

"Could I read a letter I left at Tucson, when it was a hundred miles away?" she smiled with sweet patronage.

"Not if you left it at Tucson," he assented, with an answering smile.

"Maybe I did lose it." She frowned, trying to remember.

"Then I'll have to tell you what was in it."

"Any time will do. I dare say it wasn't important."

"Then we'll say this time."

"Don't be stupid, Mr. Collins. I want to talk about our desert Villon."

"I said in that letter--"

She put her pony to a canter, and they galloped side by side in silence for half a mile. After she had slowed down to a walk, he continued placidly, as if oblivious of an interruption:

"I said in that letter that I had just met the young lady I was expecting to marry."

"Dear me, how interesting! Was she in the smoker?"

"No, she was in Section 3 of the Pullman."

"I wish I had happened to go into the other Pullman, but, of course, I couldn't know the young lady you were interested in was riding there."

"She wasn't."

"But you've just told me "

"That I said in the letter you took so much trouble to lose that I expected to marry the young woman passing under the name of Miss Wainwright."

"Sir!"

"That I expected--"

"Really, I am not deaf, Mr. Collins."

"--expected to marry her, just as soon as she was willing."

"Oh, she is to be given a voice in the matter, is she?"

"Ce'tainly, ma'am."

"And when?"

"Well, I had been thinking now was a right good time."

"It can't be too soon for me," she flashed back, sweeping him with proud, indignant eyes.

"But I ain't so sure. I rather think I'd better wait."

"No, no! Let us have it done with once and for all."

He relapsed into a serene, abstracted silence.

"Aren't you going to speak?" she flamed.

"I've decided to wait."

"Well, I haven't. Ask me this minute, sir, to marry you."

"Ce'tainly, if you cayn't wait. Miss Mackenzie, will you--"

"No, sir, I won't--not if you were the last man on earth," she interrupted hotly, whipping herself into a genuine rage. "I never was so insulted in my life. It would be ridiculous if it weren't so--so outrageous. You expect, do you? And it isn't conceit, but a deep-seated certainty you can't get away from."

He had her fairly. "Then you did read the letter."

"Yes, sir, I read it--and for sheer, unmatched impudence I have never seen its like."

"Now, I wish you would tell me what you really think," he drawled.

Not being able, for reasons equestrian, to stamp her foot, she gave her bronco the spur.

When Collins again found conversation practicable, the Rocking Chair, a white adobe huddle in the moonlight, lay peacefully beneath them in the alley.

"It's a right quaint old ranch, and it's seen a heap of rough-and-tumble life in its day. If those old adobe bricks could tell stories, I expect they could put some of these romances out of business." Miss Mackenzie's covert glance questioned suspiciously what this diversion might mean.

"All this country's interesting. Take Tucson now that burg is loaded to the roofs with live stories. It's an all-right business town, too--the best in the territory," he continued patriotically. "She ain't so great as Douglas on ore or as Phoenix on lungers, but when it comes, to the git-up-and-git hustle, she's there rounding up the trade from early morn till dine."

He was still expatiating in a monologue with grave enthusiasm on the town of his choice, when they came to the pasture fence of the ranch.

"Some folks don't like it--call it adobe-town, and say it's full of greasers. Everybody to his taste, I say. Little old Tucson is good enough for me."

She gave a queer little laugh as he talked. She had put a taboo on his love story herself, but she resented the perfectly unmoved good humor with which he seemed to be accepting her verdict. She made up her mind to punish him, but he gave her no chance. As he helped her to dismount, he said:

"I'll take the horses round to the stable, Miss Mackenzie. Probably I won't see you again before I leave, but I'm hoping to meet you again in Tucson one of these days. Good-by."

She nodded a curt good-by and passed into the house. She was vexed and indignant, but had too strong a sense of humor not to enjoy a joke even when it was against herself.

"I forgot to ask him whether he loves me or Tucson more, and as one of the subjects seems to be closed I'll probably never find out," she told herself, but with a queer little tug of pain in her laughter.

Next moment she was in the arms of her father.