Chapter 12
 

Allie Lee possessed a mind at once active and contemplative. While she dreamed of Neale and their future she busied herself with many tasks, and a whole year flew by without a lagging or melancholy hour.

Neale, she believed, had been detained or sent back to Omaha, or given more important work than formerly. She divined Slingerland's doubt, but she would not give it room in her consciousness. Her heart told her that all was well with Neale, and that sooner or later he would return to her.

In Allie love had worked magic. It had freed her from a horrible black memory. She had been alone; she had wanted to die so as to forget those awful yells and screams--the murder--the blood--the terror and the anguish; she had nothing to want to live for; she had almost hated those two kind men who tried so hard to make her forget. Then suddenly, she never quite remembered when, she had seen Neale with different eyes. A few words, a touch, a gift, and a pledge--and life had been transformed for Allie Lee. Like a flower blooming overnight, her heart had opened to love, and all the distemper in her blood and all the blackness in her mind were dispelled. The relief from pain and dread was so great that love became a beautiful and all-absorbing passion. Freed then, and strangely happy, she took to the life around her as naturally as if she had been born there, and she grew like a wild flower. Neale returned to her that autumn to make perfect the realization of her dreams. When he went away she could still be happy. She owed it to him to be perfect in joy, faith, love, and duty; and her adversity had discovered to her an inward courage and an indomitable will. She lived for Neale.

Summer, autumn, winter passed, short days full of solitude, beauty, thought, and anticipation, and always achievement, for she could not stay idle. When the first green brightened the cottonwoods and willows along the brook she knew that before their leaves had attained their full growth Neale would be on his way to her. A strange and inexplicable sense of the heart told her that he was coming.

More than once that spring had she bent over the mossy rock to peer down at her face mirrored in the crystal spring. Neale had made her aware of her beauty, and she was proud of it, since it seemed to be such a strange treasure to him.

On the May morning that Slingerland left her alone she was startled by the clip-clop of horses trotting up the trail a few hours after his departure.

Her first thought was that Neale and Larry had returned. All her being suddenly radiated with rapture. She flew to the door.

Four horsemen rode into the clearing, but Neale was not among them.

Allie's joy was short-lived, and the reaction to disappointment was a violent, agonizing wrench. She lost all control of her muscles for a moment, and had to lean against the cabin to keep from falling.

By this time the foremost rider had pulled in his horse near the door. He was a young giant with hulking shoulders, ruddy-faced, bold-eyed, ugly-mouthed. He reminded Allie of some one she had seen in California. He stared hard at her.

"Hullo! Ain't you Durade's girl?" he asked, in gruff astonishment.

Then Allie knew she had seen him out in the gold-fields.

"No, I'm not," she replied.

"A-huh! You look uncommon like her.... Anybody home round here?"

"Slingerland went over the hill," said Allie. "He'll be back presently."

The fellow brushed her aside and went into the cabin. Then the other three riders arrived.

"Mornin', miss," said one, a grizzled veteran, who might have been miner, trapper, or bandit. The other two reined in behind him. One wore a wide-brimmed black sombrero from under which a dark, sinister face gleamed. The last man had sandy hair and light roving eyes.

"Whar's Fresno?" he asked.

"I'm inside," replied the man called Fresno, and he appeared at the door. He stretched out a long arm and grasped Allie before she could avoid him. When she began to struggle the huge hand closed on her wrist until she could have screamed with pain.

"Hold on, girl! It won't do you no good to jerk, an' if you holler I'll choke you," he said. "Fellers, get inside the cabin an' rustle around lively."

With one pull he hauled Allie toward his horse, and, taking a lasso off his saddle, he roped her arms to her sides and tied her to the nearest tree.

"Keep mum now or it 'll be the wuss fer you," he ordered; then he went into the cabin.

They were a bad lot, and Slingerland's reason for worry had at last been justified. Allie did not fully realize her predicament until she found herself bound to the tree. Then she was furious, and strained with all her might to slip free of the rope. But the efforts were useless; she only succeeded in bruising her arms for nothing. When she desisted she was ready to succumb to despair, until a flashing thought of Neale, of the agony that must be his if he lost her or if harm befell her, drew her up sharply, thrillingly. A girl's natural and instinctive fear was vanquished by her love.

She heard the robbers knocking things about in the cabin. They threw bales of beaver pelts out of the door. Presently Fresno reappeared carrying a buckskin sack in which Slingerland kept his money and few valuables, and the others followed, quarreling over a cane-covered demijohn in which there had once been liquor.

"Nary a drop!" growled the one who got possession of it. And with rage he threw the thing back into the cabin, where it crashed into the fire.

"Sandy, you've scattered the fire," protested the grizzled robber, as he glanced into the cabin. "Them furs is catchin'."

"Let 'em burn!" called Fresno. "We got all we want. Come on."

"But what's the sense burnin' the feller's cabin down?"

"Nuthin' 'll burn," said the dark-faced man, "an' if it does it 'll look like Indians' work. Savvy, Old Miles?"

They shuffled out together. Evidently Fresno was the leader, or at least the strongest force. He looked at the sack in his hand and then at Allie.

"You fellers fight over thet," he said, and, throwing the sack on the ground, he strode toward Allie.

The three men all made a rush for the sack and Sandy got it. The other two pressed round him, not threateningly, but aggressively, sure of their rights.

"I'll divide," said Sandy, as he mounted his horse. "Wait till we make camp. You fellers pack the beavers."

Fresno untied Allie from the tree, but he left the lasso round her; holding to it and her arm, he rudely dragged her to his horse.

"Git up, an' hurry," he ordered.

Allie mounted. The stirrups were too long.

"You fellers clear out," called Fresno, "an ketch me one of them hosses we seen along the brook."

While he readjusted the stirrups, Allie looked down upon him. He was an uncouth ruffian, and his touch gave her an insupportable disgust. He wore no weapons, but his saddle holster contained a revolver and the sheath a Winchester. Allie could have shot him and made a run for it, and she had the nerve to attempt it. The others, however, did not get out of sight before Fresno had the stirrups adjusted. He strode after them, leading the horse. Allie glanced back to see a thin stream of smoke coming out of the cabin door. Then she faced about, desperately resolved to take any chance to get away. She decided that she would not be safe among these men for very long. Whatever she was to do she must do that day, and she only awaited her opportunity.

At the ford Sandy caught one of Slingerland's horses--a mustang and a favorite of Allie's, and one she could ride. He was as swift as the wind. Once upon him, she could run away from any horse which these robbers rode. Fresno put the end of the lasso round the mustang's neck.

"Can you ride bareback?" he asked Allie.

Allie lied. Her first thought was to lead them astray as to her skill with a horse; and then it occurred to her that if she rode Fresno's saddle there might be an opportunity to use the gun.

Fresno leaped astride the mustang, and was promptly bucked off. The other men guffawed. Fresno swore and, picking himself up, tried again. This time the mustang behaved better, but it was plain he did not like the weight. Then Fresno started off, leading his own horse, and at a trot that showed he wanted to cover ground.

Allie heard the others quarreling over something, probably the gold Slingerland had been so many years in accumulating.

They rode on to where the valley opened into another, along which wound the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail. They kept to this, traveling east for a few miles, and then entered an intersecting valley, where some distance up they had a camp. They had not taken the precaution to hide either packs or mules, and so far as Allie could tell they had no fear of Indians. Probably they had crossed from California, and, being dishonest and avoiding caravans and camps, they had not become fully acquainted with the perils of that region.

It was about noon when they arrived at this place. The sun was becoming blurred and a storm appeared brewing. Fresno dismounted, dropping the halter of the mustang. Then he let go his own bridle. The eyes he bent on Allie made her turn hers away as from something that could scorch and stain. He pulled her off the saddle, rudely, with coarse and meaning violence.

Allie pushed him back and faced him. In a way she had been sheltered all her life, yet she had lived among such men as this man, and she knew that resistance or pleadings were useless; they would only inflame him. She was not ready yet to court death.

"Wait," she said.

"A-huh!" he grunted, breathing heavily. He was an animal, slow- witted and brutal.

"Fresno, I am Durade's girl!" she went on.

"I thought I knowed you. But you're grown to be a woman an' a dam' pretty one."

Allie drew him aside, farther from the others, who had renewed a loud altercation. "Fresno, it's gold you want," she affirmed, rather than asked.

"Sure. But no small stake like thet'd be my choice ag'in' you," he leered, jerking a thumb back at his companions.

"You remember Horn?" went on Allie.

"Horn! The miner who made thet big strike out near Sacramento?"

"Yes, that's who I mean," replied Allie, hurriedly. "We--we left California in his caravan. He brought all his gold with him."

Fresno showed a growing interest.

"We were attacked by Sioux.... Horn buried all that gold--on the spot. All--all the others were killed--except me.... And I know where--" Allie shuddered with what the words brought up. But no memory could weaken her.

Fresno opened his large mouth to bawl this unexpected news to his comrades.

"Don't call them--don't tell them," Allie whispered. "There's only one condition. I'll take you where that gold's hidden."

"Girl, I can make you tell," he replied, menacingly.

"No, you can't."

"You ain't so smart you think I'll let you go--jest for some gold?" he queried. "Gold'll be cheap along this trail soon. An' girls like you are scarce."

"No, that's not what I meant.... Get rid of the others--and I'll take you where Horn buried his gold."

Fresno stared at her. He grinned. The idea evidently surprised and flattered him; yet it was perplexing.

"But Frank--he's my pard--thet one with the black hat," he protested. "I couldn't do no dirt to Frank.... What's your game, girl? I'll beat you into tellin' me where thet gold is."

"Beating won't make me tell," replied Allie, with intensity. "Nothing will--if I don't want to. My game is for my life. You know I've no chance among four men like you."

"Aw, I don't know about thet," he blustered. "I can take care of you.... But, say, if you'd stand fer Frank, mebbe I'll take you up.... Girl, are you lyin' about thet gold?"

"No."

"Why didn't the trapper dig it up? You must hev told him."

"Because he was afraid to keep it in or near his cabin. We meant to leave it until we were ready to get out of the country."

That appeared plausible to Fresno and he grew more thoughtful.

Meanwhile the altercation among the other three ruffians assumed proportions that augured a fight.

"I'll divide this sack when I git good an' ready," declared Sandy.

"But, pard, thet's no square deal," protested Old Miles. "I'm a- gittin' mad. I seen you meant to keep it all."

The dark-faced ruffian shoved a menacing fist under Sandy's nose. "When do I git mine?" he demanded.

Fresno wheeled and called, "Frank, you come here!"

The other approached sullenly. "Fresno, thet Sandy is whole hog or none!" he exclaimed.

"Let 'em fight it out," replied Fresno. "We've got a bigger game.... Besides, they'll shoot each other up. Then we'll hev it all. Come, give 'em elbow room."

He led Allie and his horse away a little distance.

"Fetch them packs, Frank," he called. The mustang followed, and presently Frank came with one of the packs. Fresno slipped the saddle from his horse, and, laying it under a tree, he pulled gun and rifle from their sheaths. The gun he stuck in his belt; the rifle he leaned against a branch.

"Sandy'll plug Old Miles in jest another minnit," remarked Fresno.

"What's this other game?" queried Frank, curiously.

"It's gold, Frank--gold," replied Fresno; and in few words he told his comrade about Horn's buried treasure. But he did not mention the condition under which the girl would reveal its hiding-place. Evidently he had no doubt that he could force her to tell.

"Let's rustle," cried Frank, his dark face gleaming. "We want to git out of this country quick."

"You bet! An' I wonder when we'll be fetchin' up with them railroad camps we heerd about ... Camps full of gold an' whisky an' wimmen!"

"We've enough on our hands now," replied Frank. "Let's rustle fer thet--"

A gun-shot interrupted him. Then a hoarse curse rang out--and then two more reports from a different gun.

"Them last was Sandy's," observed Fresno, coolly. "An' of course they landed ... Go see if Old Miles hit Sandy."

Frank strode off under the trees.

Allie had steeled herself to anything, and those shots warned her that now she had two less enemies to contend with, and that she must be quick to seize the first opportunity to act. She could leap upon the mustang, and if she was lucky she could get away. She could jump for the Winchester and surely shoot one of these villains, perhaps both of them. But the spirit that gave her the nerve to attempt either plan bade her wait, not too long, but longer, in the hope of a more favorable moment.

Frank returned to Fresno, and he carried the sack of gold that had caused dissension. Fresno laughed.

"Sandy's plugged hard--low down," said Frank. "He can't live. An' Old Miles is croaked."

"A-huh! Frank, I'll go git the other packs. An' you see what's in this sack," said Fresno.

When he got out of sight, Allie slipped the lasso from her waist.

"I don't need that hanging to me," she said.

"Sure you don't, sweetheart," replied the ruffian Frank. "Thet man Fresno is rough with ladies. Now I'm gentle. ... Come an' let me spill this sack in your lap."

"I guess not," replied Allie.

"Wal, you're sure a cat ... Look at her eyes! ... All right, don't git mad at me."

He spilled the contents of the sack out on the sand, and bent over it.

What had made Allie's eyes flash was the recognition of her opportunity. She did not hesitate an instant. First she looked to see just where the mustang stood. He was near, with the rope dragging, half coiled. Allie suddenly noticed the head and ears of the mustang. He heard something. She looked up the valley slope and saw a file of Indians riding down, silhouetted against the sky. They were coming fast. For an instant Allie's senses reeled. Then she rallied. Her situation was desperate--almost hopeless. But here was the issue of life or death, and she met it.

In one bound she had the rifle. Long before, she had ascertained that it was loaded. The man Frank heard the click of the raising hammer.

"What're you doin'?" he demanded, fiercely.

"Don't get up!" warned Allie. She stepped backward nearer the mustang. "Look up the slope! ... Indians!"

But he paid no heed. He jumped up and strode toward her.

"Look, man!" cried Allie, piercingly. He came on. Then Fresno appeared, running, white of face,

Allie, without leveling the rifle, fired at Frank, even as his clutching hands struck the weapon.

He halted, with sudden gasp, sank to his knees, fell against the tree, and then staggered up again.

Allie had to drop the rifle to hold the frightened mustang. She mounted him, urged him away, and hauled in the dragging lasso. Once clear of brush and stones, he began to run. Allie saw a clear field ahead, but there were steep rocky slopes boxing the valley. She would be hemmed in. She got the mustang turned, and ran among the trees, keeping far over to the left. She heard beating hoofs off to the right, crashings in brush, and then yells. An opening showed the slope alive with Indians riding hard. Some were heading down, and others up the valley to cut off her escape; the majority were coming straight for the clumps of trees.

Fresno burst out of cover mounted on Sandy's bay horse. He began to shoot. And the Indians fired in reply. All along the slopes rose white puffs of smoke, and bullets clipped dust from the ground in front of Allie. Fresno drew ahead. The bay horse was swift. Allie pulled her mustang more to the left, hoping to get over the ridge, which on that side was not high. To her dismay, Indians appeared there, too. She wheeled back to the first course and saw that she must attempt what Fresno was trying.

Then the robber Frank appeared, riding out of the cedars. The Indian riders closed rapidly in on him, shooting all the time. His horse was hit, and stumbling, it almost threw the rider. Then the horse ran wildly--could not be controlled. One Indian was speeding from among the others. He had a bow bent double, and suddenly it straightened. Allie saw dust fly from Frank's back. He threw up his arms and slid off under the horse, the saddle slipping with him. The horse, wounded and terrorized, began to plunge, dragging man and saddle.

Ahead, far to the right, Fresno was gaining on his pursuers. He was out of range now, but the Indians kept shooting. Then Allie's situation became so perilous that she saw only the Indians to the left, with their mustangs stretched out so as to intercept her before she got out into the wider valley.

Her mustang did not need to be goaded. The yells behind and on all sides, and the whistling bullets, drove him to his utmost. Allie had all she could do to ride him. She was nearly blinded by the stinging wind, yet she saw those lithe, half-naked savages dropping gradually back and she knew that she was gaining. Her hair became loose and streamed in the wind. She heard the yells then. No more rifles cracked. Her pursuers had discovered that she was a girl and were bent on her capture.

Fleet and strong the mustang ran, sure-footed, leaping the washes, and outdistancing the pursuers on the left. Allie thought she could turn into the big valley and go down the main trail before the Indians chasing Fresno discovered her. But vain hope! Across the width of the valley where it opened out, a string of Indians appeared, riding back to meet her.

A long dust line, dotted with bobbing objects, to the right. Behind a close-packed bunch of hard riders. In front an opening trap of yelling savages. She was lost. And suddenly she remembered the fate of her mother. Her spirit sank, her strength fled. Everything blurred around her. She lost control of the mustang. She felt him turning, slowing, the yells burst hideously in her ears. Like her mother's--her fate. A roar of speedy hoof-beats seemed to envelop her, and her nostrils were filled with dust. They were upon her. She prayed for a swift stroke--then for her soul. All darkened--her senses were failing. Neale's face glimmered there--in space--and again was lost. She was slipping--slipping--A rude and powerful hold fastened upon her. Then all faded.