Chapter 27
 

For many moments after the beautiful bare-armed woman closed and locked the door Allie Lee sat in ecstasy, in trembling anticipation of Neale.

Gradually, however, in intervals of happy mind-wanderings, other thoughts intruded. This little bedroom affected her singularly and she was at a loss to account for the fact. It did not seem that she was actually afraid to be there, for she was glad. Fear of Durade and his gang recurred, but she believed that the time of her deliverance was close at hand. Possibly Durade, with some of his men, had been killed in the fight with Hough. Then she remembered having heard the Spaniard order Fresno and Mull to go round by the street. They must be on her trail at this very moment. Ancliffe had been seen, and not much time could elapse before her whereabouts would be discovered. But Allie bore up bravely. She was in the thick of grim and bloody and horrible reality. Those brave men, strangers to her, had looked into her face, questioned her, then had died for her. It was all so unbelievable. In another room, close to her, lay Ancliffe, dead. Allie tried not to think of him; of the remorseless way in which he had killed the Mexican; of the contrast between this action and his gentle voice and manner. She tried not to think of the gambler Hough--the cold iron cast of his face as he won Durade's gold, the strange, intent look which he gave her a moment before the attack. There was something magnificent in Ancliffe's bringing her to a refuge while he was dying; there was something magnificent in Hough's standing off the gang. Allie divined that through her these two men had fought and died for something in themselves as well as for her honor and life.

The little room seemed a refuge for Allie, yet it was oppressive, as had been the atmosphere of the parlor where Ancliffe lay. But this oppressiveness was not death. Allie had become familiar with death near at hand. This refuge made her flesh creep.

The room was not the home of any one--it was not inhabited, it was not livable. Yet it contained the same kind of furniture Durade had bought for her and it was clean and comfortable. Still, Allie shrank from touching anything. Through the walls came the low, strange, discordant din to which she had become accustomed--an intense, compelling blend of music, song, voice, and step actuated by one spirit. Then at times she imagined she heard distant hammering and the slap of a falling board.

Probably Allie had not stayed in this room many moments when she began to feel that she had been there hours. Surely the woman would return soon with Neale. And the very thoughts drove all else out of her mind, leaving her palpitating with hope, sick with longing.

Footsteps outside distracted her from the nervous, dreamy mood. Some one was coming along the hall. Her heart gave a wild bound--then sank. The steps passed by her door. She heard the thick, maudlin voice of a man and the hollow, trilling laugh of a girl.

Allie's legs began to grow weak under her. The strain, the suspense, the longing grew to be too much for her and occasioned a revulsion of feeling. She had let her hopes carry her too high.

Suddenly the door-handle rattled and turned. Allie was brought to a stifling expectancy, motionless in the center of the room. Some one was outside at the door. Could it be Neale? It must be! Her sensitive ears caught short, puffing breaths--then the click of a key in the lock. Allie stood there in an anguish of suspense, with the lift of her heart almost suffocating her. Like a leaf in the wind she quivered.

Whoever was out there fumbled at the key. Then the lock rasped, the handle turned, the door opened. A tall man swaggered in, with head bent sideways, his hand removing the key from the lock. Before he saw Allie he closed the door. With that he faced around.

Allie recognized the red face, the flashing eyes, the flaming hair.

"Larry!" she cried, with bursting heart. She took a quick step, ready to leap into his arms, but his violent start checked her. Larry staggered back--put a hand out. His face was heated and flushed as Allie had never seen it. A stupid surprise showed there. Slowly his hand moved up to cross his lips, to brush through his red hair; then with swifter movement it swept back to feel the door, as if he wanted the touch of tangible things.

"Reckon I'm seein' 'em again!" he muttered to himself. "Oh, Larry-- I'm Allie Lee!" she cried, holding out her hands.

She saw the color fade out of his face. A shock seemed to go over his body. He took a couple of dragging strides toward her. His eyes had the gaze of a man who did not believe what he saw. The hand he reached out shook.

"I'm no ghost! Larry, don't--you--know me?" she faltered. Indeed he must have thought her a phantom. Great, clammy drops stood out upon his brow.

"Dear old--redhead!" she whispered, brokenly, with a smile of agony and joy. He would know her when she spoke that way--called him the name she had tormented him with--the name no one else would have dared to use.

Then she saw he believed in her reality. His face began to work. She threw her arms about him--she gave up to a frenzy of long-deferred happiness. Where Larry was there would Neale be.

"Allie--it ain't--you?" he asked, hoarsely, as he hugged her close.

"Oh, Larry--yes--yes--and I'll die of joy!" she whispered.

"Then you shore ain't--daid?" he went on, incredulously.

How sweet to Allie was the old familiar Southern drawl!

"Dead? Never....Why, I've kissed you! ... and you haven't kissed me back."

She felt his breast heave as he lifted her off her feet to kiss her awkwardly, boyishly.

"Shore--the world's comin' to an end! ... But mebbe I'm only drunk!"

He held her close, towering over her, while he gazed around him and down at her, shaking his head, muttering again in bewilderment,

"Reddy dear--where, oh, where is Neale?" she breathed, all her heart in her voice.

As he released her Allie felt a difference. His whole body seemed to gather, to harden, then vibrate, as if he had been stung.

"My Gawd!" he whispered in hoarse accents of amaze and horror. "Is it you--Allie--here?"

"Of course it's I," replied Allie, blankly.

His face turned white to the lips.

"Reddy, what in the world is wrong?" she gasped, beginning to wring her hands.

Suddenly he leaped at her. With rude, iron grasp he forced her back, under the light, and fixed piercing eyes upon hers. He bent closer. Allie was frightened, yet fascinated. His gaze hurt with its intensity, its strange, penetrating power. Allie could not bear it.

"Allie, look at me," he said, low and hard. "For I reckon you mayn't hev very long to live!"

Allie struggled weakly. He looked so gray, grim, and terrible. But she could resist neither his strength nor his spirit. She lay quiet and met the clear, strange fire of his eyes. In a few swift moments he had changed utterly.

"Larry--aren't--you--drunk?" she faltered.

"I was, but now I'm sober.... Girl, kiss me again!"

In wonder and fear Allie complied, now flushing scarlet.

"I--I was never so happy," she whispered. "But Larry--you--you frighten me.... I--"

"Happy!" ejaculated Larry. Then he let her go and stood up, breathing hard. "There's a hell of a lie heah somewheres--but it ain't in you."

"Larry, talk sense. I'm weak from long waiting. Oh, tell me of Neale!"

What a strange, curious, incomprehensible glance he gave her!

"Allie--Neale's heah in Benton. I can take you to him in ten minutes. Do you want me to?"

"Want you to! ... Reddy! I'll die if you don't take me--at once!" she cried, in anguish.

Again Larry loomed over her. This tune he took her hands. "How long had you been heah--before I came?" he asked.

"Half an hour, perhaps; maybe less. But it seemed long." "Do you-- know--what kind of a house you're in--this heah room--what it means?" he went on, very low and huskily.

"No, I don't," she replied, instantly, with sudden curiosity. Questions and explanations rushed to her lips. But this strangely acting Larry dominated her.

"No other man--came in heah? I--was the first?" "Yes."

Then Larry King seemed to wrestle with--himself--with the hold drink had upon him--with that dark and sinister oppression so thick in the room. Allie thrilled to see his face grow soft and light up with the smile she remembered. How strange to feel in Larry King a spirit of gladness, of gratefulness for something beyond her understanding! Again he drew her close. And Allie, keen to read and feel him, wondered why he seemed to want to hide the sight of his face.

"Wal--I reckon--I was nigh onto bein' drunk," he said, haltingly. "Shore is a bad habit of mine--Allie.... Makes me think of a lot of- -guff--jest the same as it makes me see snakes--an' things.... I'll quit drinkin', Allie.... Never will touch liquor again--now if you'll jest forgive."

He spoke gently, huskily, with tears in his voice, and he broke off completely.

"Forgive! Larry, boy, there's nothing to forgive--except your not hurrying me to--to him!"

She felt the same violent start in him. He held her a moment longer. Then, when he let go of her arid stepped back Allie saw the cowboy as of old, cool and easy, yet somehow menacing, as he had been that day the strangers rode into Slingerland's camp.

"Allie--thet woman Stanton locked you in heah?" queried Larry.

"Yes. Then she--"

Larry's quick gesture enjoined silence. Stealthy steps sounded out in the hall. They revived Allie's fear of Durade and his men. It struck her suddenly that Larry must be ignorant of the circumstances that had placed her there.

The cowboy unlocked the door--peeped out. As he turned, how clear and cold his blue eyes flashed!

"I'll get you out of heah," he whispered. "Come."

They went out. The passage was empty. Allie clung closely to him. At the corner, where the halls met, he halted to listen. Only the low hum of voices came up.

"Larry, I must tell you," whispered Allie. "Durade and his gang are after me. Fresno--Mull--Black--Dayss--you know them?"

"I--reckon," he replied, swallowing hard. "My Gawd! you poor little girl! With that gang after you! An' Stanton! I see all now.... She says to me, 'Larry, I've a new girl heah'.... Wal, Beauty Stanton, thet was a bad deal for you--damn your soul!"

Trembling, Allie opened her lips to speak, but again the cowboy motioned her to be quiet. He need not have done it, for he suddenly seemed terrible, wild, deadly, rendering her mute.

"Allie if I call to you, duck behind me an' hold on to me. I'll take you out of heah."

Then he put her on his left side and led her down the righthand passage toward the wide room Allie remembered. She looked on into the dance-hall. Larry did not hurry. He sauntered carelessly, yet Allie felt how intense he was. They reached the head of the stairway. The room was full of men and girls. The woman Stanton was there and, wheeling, she uttered a cry that startled Allie. Was this white, glaring-eyed, drawn-faced woman the one who had gone for Neale? Allie began to shake. She saw and heard with startling distinctness. The woman's cry had turned every face toward the stairway, and the buzz of voices ceased.

Stanton ran to the stairway, started up, and halted, raising a white arm in passionate gesture.

"Where are you taking that girl?" she called, stridently.

Larry stepped down, drawing Allie with him. "I'm takin' her to Neale."

Stanton shrieked and waved her arms. Indeed, she seemed another woman from the one upon whose breast Allie had laid her head just a little while before.

"No, you won't take her to Neale!" cried Stanton.

The cowboy stepped down slowly, guardedly, but he kept on. Allie saw men run out of the crowded dance-hall into the open space behind Stanton. Dark, hateful, well-remembered faces of Fresno--Mull-- Black! Allie pressed the cowboy's arm to warn him, and he, letting go of her, appeared to motion her behind him.

"Stanton! Get out of my way!" yelled Larry. His voice rang with a wild, ruthless note; it carried far and stiffened every figure except that of the frantic woman. With convulsed face, purple in its fury, and the hot eyes of a beast of prey she ran right up at the cowboy, heedless of the gun he held leveled low down.

He shot her. She swayed backward, uttering a low and horrible cry, and even as she swayed her face blanched and her eyes changed. She fell heavily, with her golden hair loosening and her bare white arms spreading wide. Then in the horror-stricken silence she lay there, still conscious, but with an awful hunted realization in the eyes fixed upon the cowboy, a great growing splotch of blood darkening the white of her dress.

Larry King did not look at Stanton and he kept moving down the steps; he was walking faster now, and he drew Allie behind him. The first of that stunned group to awake to action was the giant Fresno, as, with blind, unreasoning passion, he attempted to draw upon the cowboy. The boom of Larry's big gun and the crash of Fresno as he fell woke the spellbound crowd into an uproar. Screaming women and shouting men rushed madly back into the dance-hall.

Larry turned toward the hallway leading to the street. Mull and Black began shooting as he turned, and hit him, for Allie, holding fast to him, felt the vibrating shock of his body. With two swift shots Larry killed both men. Mull fell across the width of the hall. And as Allie stumbled over his body she looked down to see his huge head, his ruddy face, and the great ox-eyes, rolling and ghastly. In that brief glance she saw him die.

The cowboy strode fast now. Allie, with hands clenched in his coat, clung desperately to him. Hollow booms of guns filled the passageway, and hoarse shouts of alarmed men sounded from the street. Burned powder smoke choked Allie. The very marrow of her bones seemed curdled. She saw the red belches of fire near and far; she passed a man floundering and bellowing on the floor; she felt Larry jerk back as if struck, and then something hot grazed her shoulder. A bullet had torn clear through him, from breast to back. He staggered, but he went on. Another man lay on the threshold of the wide door, his head down the step, and his pallid face blood- streaked. A smoking gun lay near his twitching hand. That pallid face belonged to Dayss.

Larry King staggered out into an empty street, looking up and down. "Wal, I reckon--thet's--aboot--all!" he drawled, with low, strangled utterance.

Then swaying from side to side he strode swiftly, almost falling forward, holding tight to Allie. They drew away from the brighter lights. Allie was dimly aware of moving forms ahead and across the street. Once, fearfully, she looked back, to see if they were followed.

The cowboy halted, tottering against a house, He seemed pale and smiling.

"Run--Allie!" he whispered.

"No--no--no!" she replied, clinging to him. "You're shot! ... Oh, Larry--come on!"

"Tell--my pard--Neale--"

His head fell back hard against the wood and his body, sagging, lodged there. Life had passed out of the gray face. Larry Red King died standing, with a gun in each hand, and the name of his friend the last word upon his lips.

"Oh, Larry--Larry!" moaned Allie.

She could not run. She could scarcely walk. Dark forms loomed up. Her strength failed, and as she reeled, sinking down, rude hands grasped her. Above her bent the gleaming face and glittering eyes of Durade.