Chapter 22. For a Good Reason
 

The young ladies, following the custom of Arizona in summer, were riding by the light of the stars to avoid the heat of the day. They rode leisurely, chatting as their ponies paced side by side. For though they were cousins they were getting acquainted with each other for the first time. Both of them found this a delightful process, not the less so because they were temperamentally very different. Each of them knew already that they were going to be great friends. They had exchanged the histories of their lives, lying awake girl fashion to talk into the small hours, each omitting certain passages, however, that had to do with two men who were at that moment approaching nearer every minute to them.

Bucky O'Connor and Sheriff Collins were returning to the Rocking Chair Ranch from Epitaph, where they had just been to deposit twenty-seven thousand dollars and a prisoner by the name of Chaves. Just at the point where the road climbed from the plains and reached the summit of the first stiff hill the two parties met and passed. The ranger and the sheriff reined in simultaneously. Yet a moment and all four of them were talking at once.

They turned toward the ranch, Bucky and Frances leading the way. Alice, riding beside her lover in the darkness, found the defenses upon which she had relied begin to fail her. Nevertheless, she summoned them to her support and met him full armed with the evasions and complexities of her sex.

"This is a surprise, Mr. Collins," he was informed in her best society voice.

"And a pleasure?"

"Of course. But I'm sorry that father has been called to Phoenix. I suppose you came to tell him about your success."

"To brag about it," he corrected. "But not to your father--to his daughter."

"That's very thoughtful of you. Will you begin now?"

"Not yet. There is something I have to tell you, Miss Mackenzie."

At the gravity in his voice the lightness slipped from her like a cloak.

"Yes. Tell me your news. Over the telephone all sorts of rumors have come to us. But even these were hearsay."

"I thought of telephoning you the facts. Then I decided to ride out and tell you at once. I knew you would want to hear the story at first hand."

Her patrician manner was gone. Her eyes looked their thanks at him. "That was good of you. I have been very anxious to get the facts.

One rumor was that you have captured Sir. Leroy. Is it true?"

It seemed to her that his look was one of grave tenderness. "No, that is not true. You remember what we said of him--of how he might die?"

"He is dead--you killed him," she cried, all the color washed from her face.

"He is dead, but I did not kill him."

"Tell me," she commanded.

He told her, beginning at the moment of his meeting with the outlaws at the Dalriada dump and continuing to the last scene of the tragedy. It touched her so nearly that she could not hear him through dry-eyed.

"And he spoke of me?" She said it in a low voice, to herself rather than to him.

"It was just before his mind began to wander--almost his last conscious thought. He said that when you heard the news you would remember. What you were to remember he didn't say. I took it you would know."

"Yes. I was to remember that he was not all wolf to me." She told it with a little break of tears in her voice.

"Then he told me to tell you that it was the best way out for him. He had come to the end of the road, and it would not have been possible for him to go back." Presently Collins added gently: "If you don't mind my saying so, I think he was right. He was content to go, quite game and steady in his easy way. If he had lived, there could have been no going back for him. It was his nature to go the limit. The tragedy is in his life, not in his death."

"Yes, I know that, but it hurts one to think it had to be--that all his splendid gifts and capabilities should end like this, and that we are forced to see it is best. He might have done so much."

"And instead he became a miscreant. I reckon there was a lack in him somewhere."

"Yes, there was a great lack in him somewhere."

They were silent for a time. She broke it to ask about York Neil.

"You wouldn't send him to prison after doing what he did, would you?"

"Meaning what?"

"You say yourself he helped you against the other outlaws. Then he showed you where to start in finding the buried money. He isn't a bad man. You know how he stood by me when I was a prisoner," she pleaded.

He nodded. "That goes a long way with me, Miss Mackenzie. The governor is a right good friend of mine. I meant to ask him for a pardon. I reckon Neil means to live straight from now on. He promised Leroy he would. He's only a wild cow-puncher gone wrong, and now he's haided right he'll pull up and walk the narrow trail."

"But can you save him from the penitentiary?"

Collins smiled. "He saved me the trouble. Coming through the Canon Del Oro in the night, he ducked. I reckon he's in Mexico now."

"I'm glad."

"Well, I ain't sorry myself, though I helped Bucky hunt real thorough for him."

"Father will be pleased to know you got the treasure back," Alice said presently, after they had ridden a bit in silence.

"And your father's daughter, Miss Alice--is she pleased?"

"What pleases father pleases me." Her voice, cool as the plash of ice water, might have daunted a less resolute man. But this one had long since determined the manner of his wooing and was not to be driven from it.

"I'm glad of that. Your father's right friendly to me," he announced, with composure.

"Indeed!"

"Sho! I ain't going to run away and hide because you look like you don't know I'm in Arizona. What kind of a lover would I be if I broke for cover every time you flashed those dark eyes at me?"

"Mr. Collins!"

"My friends call me Val," he suggested, smiling.

"I was going to ask, Mr. Collins, if you think you can bully me."

"It might be a first rate thing for you if I did, Miss Mackenzie. All your life you haven't done anything but trample on sissy boys. Now, I expect I'm not a sissy boy, but a fair imitation of a man, and I shouldn't wonder but you'd find me some too restless for a door-mat." His maimed hand happened to be resting on the saddle horn as he spoke, and the story of the maiming emphasized potently the truth of his claim.

"Don't you assume a good deal, Mr. Collins, when you imply that I have any desire to master you?"

"Not a bit," he assured her cheerfully. "Every woman wants to boss the man she's going to marry, but if she finds she can't she's glad of it, because then she knows she's got a man."

"You are quite sure I am going to marry you?" she asked gently--too gently, he thought.

"I'm only reasonably sure," he informed her. "You see, I can't tell for certain whether your pride or your good sense is the stronger."

She caught a detached glimpse of the situation, and it made for laughter.

"That's right, I want you should enjoy it," he said placidly.

"I do. It's the most absurd proposal--I suppose you call it a proposal--that ever I heard."

"I expect you've heard a good many in your time.

"We'll not discuss that, if you please."

"I am more interested in this one," he agreed.

"Isn't it about time to begin on Tucson?"

"Not to-day, ma'am. There are going to be a lot of to-morrows for you and me, and Tucson will have to wait till then."

"Didn't I give you an answer last week?"

"You did, but I didn't take it. Now I'm ready for your sure-enough answer."

She flashed a look at him that mocked his confidence. "I've heard about the vanity of girls, but never in my experience have I met any so colossal as this masculine vanity now on exhibit. Do you really think, Mr. Collins, that all you have to do to win a woman is to look impressive and tell her that you have decided to marry her?"

"Do I look as if I thought that?" he asked her.

"It is perfectly ridiculous--your absurd attitude of taking everything for granted. Well, it may be the Tucson custom, but where I come from it is not in vogue."

"No, I reckon not. Back there a boy persuades girl he loves her by ruining her digestion with candy and all sorts of ice arrangements from soda-fountain. But I'm uncivilized enough to assume you're a woman of sense and not a spoiled schoolgirl."

The velvet night was attuned to the rhythm of her love. She felt herself, in this sea of moon romance, being swept from her moorings. Star-eyed, she gazed at him while she still fought again his dominance.

"You are uncivilized. Would you beat me when I didn't obey?" she asked tremulously.

He laughed in slow contentment. "Perhaps; but I'd love you while I did it."

"Oh, you would love me." She looked across under her long lashes, not as boldly as she would have liked, and her gaze fell before his. "I haven t heard before that that was in the compact you proposed. I don't think you have remembered to mention it."

He swung from the saddle and put a hand to her bridle rein.

"Get down," he ordered.

"Why?"

"Because I say so. Get down."

She looked down at him, a man out of a thousand and for her one out of a hundred million. Before she was conscious of willing it she stood beside him. He trailed the reins of the ponies, and in two strides came back to her.

"What--do you--want?"

"I want you. girl." His arm swept round her, and he held her while he looked down into her shining eyes. "So I haven't told you that I love you. Did you need to be told?"

"We must go on," she murmured weakly. "Frances and Lieutenant O'Connor--"

"--Have their own love-affairs to attend to.

"We'll manage ours and not intrude."

"They might think--"

He laughed in deep delight. "--that we love each other. They're welcome to the thought. I haven't told you that I love you, eh? I tell you now. It's my last trump, and right here I table it. I'm no desert poet, but I love you from that dark crown of yours to those little feet that tap the floor so impatient sometimes. I love you all the time, no matter what mood you're in--when you flash dark angry eyes at me and when you laugh in that slow, understanding way nobody else in God's world has the trick of. Makes no difference to me whether you're glad or mad, I want you just the same. That's the reason why I'm going to make you love me."

"You can't do it." Her voice was very low and not quite steady.

"Why not--I'll show you."

"But you can't--for a good reason."

"Put a name to it."

"Because. Oh, you big blind man--because I love you already." She burlesqued his drawl with a little joyous laugh: "I reckon if you're right set on it I'll have to marry you, Val Collins."

His arm tightened about her as if he would hold her against the whole world. His ardent eyes possessed hers. She felt herself grow faint with a poignant delight. Her lips met his slowly in their first kiss.