Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter IX. Down the Jackrabbit Shaft.
 

Next morning Larry got up so late that he had to Order a special breakfast for himself, the dining-room being closed. He found one guest there, however, just beginning her oatmeal, and he invited himself to eat at her table.

"Good mawnin', Miss Kinney. You don't look like you had been lying awake worrying about me," he began by way of opening the conversation.

Nor did she. Youth recuperates quickly, and after a night's sound sleep she was glowing with health and sweet vitality. He could see a flush beat into the fresh softness of her flesh, but she lifted her dark lashes promptly to meet him, and came to the sex duel gaily.

"I suppose you think I had to take a sleeping-powder to keep me from it?" she flashed back.

"Oh, well, a person can dream," he suggested.

"How did you know? But you are right. I did dream of you."

To the waiter he gave his order before answering her. "Some oatmeal and bacon and eggs. Yes, coffee. And some hot cakes, Charlie. Did you honest dream about me?" This last not to the Chinese waiter who had padded soft-footed to the kitchen.

"Yes."

She smiled shyly at him with sweet innocence, and he drew his chair a trifle closer

"Tell me."

"I don't like to."

"But you must. Go on."

"Well," very reluctantly. "I dreamed I was visiting the penitentiary and you were there in stripes. You were in for stealing a sheep, I think. Yes, that was it, for stealing a sheep."

"Couldn't you make it something more classy if you're bound to have me in?" he begged, enjoying immensely the rise she was taking out of him.

"I have to tell it the way it was," she insisted, her eyes bubbling with fun. "And it seems you were the prison cook. First thing I knew you were standing in front of a wall and two hundred of the prisoners were shooting at you. They were using your biscuits as bullets."

"That was a terrible revenge to take on me for baking them."

"It seems you had your sheep with you-- the one you stole, and you and it were being pelted all over."

"Did you see a lady hold-up among those shooting at me?" he inquired anxiously.

She shook her head. "And just when the biscuits were flying thickest the wall opened and Mr. Fraser appeared. He caught you and the sheep by the back of your necks, and flung you in. Then the wall closed, and I awoke."

"That's about as near the facts as dreams usually get."

He was very much pleased, for it would have been a great disappointment to him if she had admitted dreaming about him for any reason except to make fun of him. The thing about her that touched his imagination most was something wild and untamed, some quality of silken strength in her slim supple youth that scoffed at all men and knew none as master. He meant to wrest from her if he could an interest that would set him apart in her mind from all others, but he wanted the price of victory to cost him something. Thus the value of it would be enhanced.

"But tell me about your escape-- all about it and what became of Lieutenant Fraser. And first of all, who the lady was that opened the door for you," she demanded.

"She was his sister."

"Oh! His sister." Her voice was colorless. She observed him without appearing to do so. "Very pretty, I thought her. Didn't you?"

"Right nice looking. Had a sort of an expression made a man want to look at her again."

"Yes."

Innocently unaware that he was being pumped, he contributed more information. "And that game."

"She was splendid. I can see her now opening the door in the face of the bullets."

"Never a scream out of her either. Just as cool."

"That is the quality men admire most, isn't it-- courage?"

"I don't reckon that would come first. Course it wouldn't make a hit with a man to have a woman puling around all the time."

"My kind, you mean."

Though she was smiling at him with her lips, it came to him that his words were being warped to a wrong meaning.

"No, I don't," he retorted bluntly.

"As I remember it, I was bawling every chance I got yesterday and the day before," she recalled, with fine contempt of herself.

"Oh, well! You had reason a-plenty. And sometimes a woman cries just like a man cusses. It don't mean anything. I once knew a woman wet her handkerchief to a sop crying because her husband forgot one mo'ning to kiss her good-by. She quit irrigating to run into a burning house after a neighbor's kids."

"I accept your apology for my behavior if you'll promise I won't do it again," she laughed. "But tell me more about Miss Fraser. Does she live here?"

For a moment he was puzzled. "Miss Fraser! Oh! She gave up that name several years ago. Mrs. Collins they call her. And say, you ought to see her kiddies. You'd fall in love with them sure."

The girl covered her mistake promptly with a little laugh. It would never do for him to know she had been yielding to incipient jealousy. "Why can't I know them? I want to meet her too."

The door opened and a curly head was thrust in. "Dining-room closes for breakfast at nine. My clock says it's ten-thirty now. Pretty near work to keep eating that long, ain't it? And this Sunday, too! I'll have you put in the calaboose for breaking the Sabbath."

"We're only bending it," grinned Neill. "Good mo'ning, Lieutenant. How is Mrs. Collins, and the pickaninnies?"

"First rate. Waiting in the parlor to be introduced to Miss Kinney."

"We're through," announced Margaret, rising.

"You too, Tennessee? The proprietor will be grateful."

The young women took to each other at once. Margaret was very fond of children, and the little boy won her heart immediately. Both he and his baby sister were well-trained, healthy, and lovable little folks, and they adopted "Aunt Peggy" enthusiastically.

Presently the ranger proposed to Neill an adjournment.

"I got to take some breakfast down the Jackrabbit shaft to my prisoner. Wanter take a stroll that way?" he asked.

"If the ladies will excuse us."

"Glad to get rid of you," Miss Kinney assured him promptly, but with a bright smile that neutralized the effect of her sauciness. "Mrs. Collins and I want to have a talk."

The way to the Jackrabbit lay up a gulch behind the town. Up one incline was a shaft-house with a great gray dump at the foot of it. This they left behind them, climbing the hill till they came to the summit.

The ranger pointed to another shaft-house and dump on the next hillside.

"That's the Mal Pais, from which the district is named. Dunke owns it and most of the others round here. His workings and ours come together in several places, but we have boarded up the tunnels at those points and locked the doors we put in. Wonder where Brown is? I told him to meet me here to let us down."

At this moment they caught sight of him coming up a timbered draw. He lowered them into the shaft, which was about six hundred feet deep. From the foot of the shaft went a tunnel into the heart of the mountain. Steve led the way, flashing an electric searchlight as he went.

"We aren't working this part of the mine any more," he explained. "It connects with the newer workings by a tunnel. We'll go back that way to the shaft."

"You've got quite a safe prison," commented the other.

"It's commodious, anyhow; and I reckon it's safe. If a man was to get loose he couldn't reach the surface without taking somebody into partner-ship with him. There ain't but three ways to daylight; one by the shaft we came down, another by way of our shaft-house, and the third by Dunke's, assuming he could break through into the Mal Pais. He'd better not break loose and go to wandering around. There are seventeen miles of workings down here in the Jackrabbit, let alone the Mal Pais. He might easily get lost and starve to death. Here he is at the end of this tunnel."

Steve flashed the light twice before he could believe his eyes. There was no sign of Struve except the handcuffs depending from an iron chain connected by a heavy staple with the granite wall. Apparently he had somehow managed to slip from the gyves by working at them constantly.

The officer turned to his friend and laughed. "I reckon I'm holding the sack this time. See. There's blood on these cuffs. He rasped his hands some before he got them out."

"Well, you've still got him safe down here somewhere."

"Yes, I have or Dunke has. The trouble is both the mines are shut down just now. He's got about forty miles of tunnel to play hide-and-go-seek in. He's in luck if he doesn't starve to death."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I'll have to get some of my men out on search-parties-- just tell them there's a man lost down here without telling them who. I reckon we better say nothing about it to the ladies. You know how tender-hearted they are. Nellie wouldn't sleep a wink to-night for worrying."

"All right. We'd better get to it at once then."

Fraser nodded. "We'll go up and rustle a few of the boys that know the mine well. I expect before we find him Mr. Wolf Struve will be a lamb and right anxious for the shepherd to arrive."

All day the search proceeded without results, and all of the next day. The evening of this second day found Struve still not accounted for.