Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter X. In a Tunnel of the Mal Pais
 

Although Miss Kinney had assured Neill that she was glad to be rid of him it occurred to her more than once in the course of the day that he was taking her a little too literally. On Sunday she did not see a glimpse of him after he left. At lunch he did not appear, nor was he in evidence at dinner. Next morning she learned that he had been to breakfast and had gone before she got down. She withheld judgment till lunch, being almost certain that he would be on hand to that meal. His absence roused her resentment and her independence. If he didn't care to see her she certainly did not want to see him. She was not going to sit around and wait for him to take her down into the mine he had promised she should see. Let him forget his appointment if he liked. He would wait a long time before she made any more engagements with him.

About this time Dunke began to flatter himself that he had made an impression. Miss Kinney was all smiles. She was graciously pleased to take a horseback ride over the camp with him, nor did he know that her roving eye was constantly on the lookout for a certain spare, clean-built figure she could recognize at a considerable distance by the easy, elastic tread. Monday evening the mine-owner called upon her and Mrs. Collins, whose brother also was among the missing, and she was delighted to accept his invitation to go through the Mal Pais workings with him.

"That is, if Mrs. Collins will go, too," she added as an afterthought.

That young woman hesitated. Though this man had led his miners against her brother, she was ready to believe the attack not caused by personal enmity. The best of feeling did not exist between the owners of the Jackrabbit and those of the Mal Pais. Dunke was suspected of boldly crossing into the territory of his neighbor where his veins did not lead. But there had been no open rupture. For the very reason that an undertow of feeling existed Nellie consented to join the party. She did not want by a refusal to put into words a hostility tha e had always carefully veiled. She was in the position of not wanting to go at all, yet wanting still less to decline to do so.

"I shall be glad to go," she said.

"Fine. We'll start about nine, or nine-thirty say. I'll drive up in a surrey."

"And we'll have lunch for the party put up at the hotel here. I'll get some fruit to take along," said Margaret.

"We'll make a regular picnic of it," added Dunke heartily. "You'll enjoy eating out of a dinner-pail for once just like one of my miners, Miss Kinney,"

After he had gone Margaret mentioned to Mrs. Collins her feeling concerning him. "I don't really like him. Or rather I don't give him my full confidence. He seems pleasant enough, too." She laughed a little as she added: "You know he does me the honor to admire me."

"Yes, I know that. I was wondering how you felt about it."

"How ought one to feel about one of the great mining kings of the West?"

"Has that anything to do with it, my dear? I mean his being a mining king?" asked Mrs. Collins gently.

Margaret went up to her and kissed her. "You're a romantic little thing. That's because you probably married a heaven-sent man. We can't all be fortunate."

"We none of us need to marry where we don't love."

"Goodness me! I'm not thinking of marrying Mr. Dunke's millions. The only thing is that I don't have a Croesus to exhibit every day at my chariot wheels. It's horrid of course, but I have a natural feminine reluctance to surrendering him all at once. I don't object in the least to trampling on him, but somehow I don't feel ready for his declaration of independence."

"Oh, if that's all!" her friend smiled.

"That's quite all."

"Perhaps you prefer Texans who come from the Panhandle."

Mrs. Collins happened to be looking straight at her out of her big brown eyes. Wherefore she could not help observing the pink glow that deepened in the soft cheeks.

"He hasn't preferred me much lately."

Nellie knitted her brow in perplexity. "I don't understand. Steve's been away, too, nearly all the time. Something is going on that we don't know about."

"Not that I care. Mr. Neill is welcome to stay away."

Her new friend shot a swift slant look at her. "I don't suppose you trample on him much."

Margaret flushed. "No, I don't. It's the other way. I never saw anybody so rude. He does not seem to have any saving sense of the proper thing."

"He's a man, dearie, and a good one. He may be untrammeled by convention, but he is clean and brave. He has eyes that look through cowardice and treachery, fine strong eyes that are honest and unafraid."

"Dear me, you must have studied them a good deal to see all that in them," said Miss Peggy lightly, yet pleased withal.

"My dear," reproached her friend, so seriously that Peggy repented.

"I didn't really mean it," she laughed. "I've heard already on good authority that you see no man's eyes except the handsome ones in the face of Mr. Tim Collins."

"I do think Tim has fine eyes," blushed the accused.

"No doubt of it. Since you have been admiring my young man I must praise yours," teased Miss Kinney.

"Am I to wish you joy? I didn't know he was your young man," flashed back the other.

"I understand that you have been trying to put him off on me."

"You'll find he does not need any 'putting off' on anybody."

"At least, he has a good friend in you. I think I'll tell him, so that when he does condescend to become interested in a young woman he may refer her to you for a recommendation."

The young wife borrowed for the occasion some of Miss Peggy's audacity. "I'm recommending him to that young woman now, my dear," she made answer.

Dunke's party left for the mine on schedule time, Water-proof coats and high lace-boots had been borrowed for the ladies as a protection against the moisture they were sure to meet in the tunnels one thousand feet below the ground. The mine-owner had had the hoisting-engine started for the occasion, and the cage took them down as swiftly and as smoothly as a metropolitan elevator. Nevertheless Margaret clung tightly to her friend, for if was her first experience of the kind. She had never before dropped nearly a quarter of a mile straight down into the heart of the earth and she felt a smothered sensation, a sense of danger induced by her unaccustomed surroundings. It is the unknown that awes, and when she first stepped from the cage and peered down the long, low tunnel through which a tramway ran she caught her breath rather quickly. She had an active imagination, and she conjured cave-ins, explosions, and all the other mine horrors she had read about.

Their host had spared no expense to make the occasion a gala one. Electric lights were twinkling at intervals down the tunnel, and an electric ore-car with a man in charge was waiting to run them into the workings nearly a mile distant. Dunke dealt out candles and assisted his guests into the car, which presently carried them deep into the mine. Margaret observed that the timbered sides of the tunnel leaned inward slightly and that the roof was heavily cross-timbered.

"It looks safe," she thought aloud.

"It's safe enough," returned Dunke carelessly. "The place for cave-ins is at the head of the workings, before we get drifts timbered."

"Are we going into any of those places?"

"I wouldn't take you into any place that wasn't safe, Miss Margaret."

"Is it always so dreadfully warm down here?" she asked.

"You must remember we're somewhere around a thousand feet in the heart of the earth. Yes, it's always warm."

"I don't see how the men stand it and work."

"Oh, they get used to it."

They left the car and followed a drift which took them into a region of perpetual darkness, into which the electric lights did not penetrate. Margaret noticed that her host carried his candle with ease, holding it at an angle that gave the best light and most resistance to the air, while she on her part had much ado to keep hers from going out. Frequently she had to stop and let the tiny flame renew its hold on the base of supplies. So, without his knowing it, she fell behind gradually, and his explanations of stopes, drifts, air-drills, and pay-streaks fell only upon the already enlightened ears of Mrs. Collins.

The girl had been picking her way through some puddles of water that had settled on the floor, and when she looked up the lights of those ahead had disappeared. She called to them faintly and hurried on, appalled at the thought of possibly losing them in these dreadful underground catacombs where Stygian night forever reigned. But her very hurry delayed her, for in her haste the gust of her motion swept out the flame. She felt her way forward along the wall, in a darkness such as she had never conceived before. Nor could she know that by chance she was following the wrong wall. Had she chosen the other her hand must have come to a break in it which showed that a passage at that point deflected from the drift toward the left. Unconsciously she passed this, already frightened but resolutely repressing her fear.

"I'll not let them know what an idiot I am. I'll not! I'll not!" she told herself.

Therefore she did not call yet, thinking she must come on them at any moment, unaware that every step was taking her farther from the gallery into which they had turned. When at last she cried out it was too late. The walls hemmed in her cry and flung it back tauntingly to her-- the damp walls against which she crouched in terror of the subterranean vault in which she was buried. She was alone with the powers of darkness, with the imprisoned spirits of the underworld that fought inarticulately against the audacity of the puny humans who dared venture here. So her vivid imagination conceived it, terrorizing her against both will and reason.

How long she wandered, a prey to terror, calling helplessly in the blackness, she did not know. It seemed to her that she must always wander so, a perpetual prisoner condemned to this living grave. So that it was with a distinct shock of glad surprise she heard a voice answer faintly her calls. Calling and listening alternately, she groped her way in the direction of the sounds, and so at last came plump against the figure of the approaching rescuer.

"Who is it?" a hoarse voice demanded.

But before she could answer a match flared and was held close to her face. The same light that revealed her to him told the girl who this man was that had met her alone a million miles from human aid. The haggard, drawn countenance with the lifted upper lip and the sunken eyes that glared into hers belonged to the convict Nick Struve.

The match went out before either of them spoke.

"You-- you here!" she exclaimed, and was oddly conscious that her relief at meeting even him had wiped out for the present her fear of the man.

"For God's sake, have you got anything to eat?" he breathed thickly.

It had been part of the play that each member of their little party should carry a dinner-pail just like an ordinary miner. Wherefore she had hers still in her hand.

"Yes, and I have a candle here. Have you another match?"

He lit the candle with a shaking hand.

"Gimme that bucket," he ordered gruffly, and began to devour ravenously the food he found in it, tearing at sandwiches and gulping them down like a hungry dog.

"What day is this?" he stopped to ask after he had stayed the first pangs.

She told him Tuesday.

"I ain't eaten since Saturday," he told her. "I figured it was a week. There ain't any days in this place-- nothin' but night. Can't tell one from another."

"It's terrible," she agreed.

His appetite was wolfish. She could see that he was spent, so weak with hunger that he had reeled against the wall as she handed him the dinner-pail. Pallor was on the sunken face, and exhaustion in the trembling hands and unsteady gait.

"I'm about all in, what with hunger and all I been through. I thought I was out of my head when I heard you holler." He snatched up the candle from the place where he had set it and searched her face by its flame. "How come you down here? You didn't come alone. What you doin' here?" he demanded suspiciously.

"I came down with Mr. Dunke and a, friend to look over his mine. I had never been in one before."

"Dunke!" A spasm of rage swept the man's face. "You're a friend of his, are you? Where is he? If you came with him how come you to be roaming around alone?"

"I got lost. Then my light went out."

"So you're a friend of Dunke, that damned double-crosser! He's a millionaire, you think, a big man in this Western country. That's what he claims, eh?" Struve shook a fist into the air in a mad burst of passion. "Just watch me blow him higher'n a kite. I know what he is, and I got proof. The Judas! I keep my mug shut and do time while he gets off scot-free and makes his pile. But you listen to me, ma'am. Your friend ain't nothin' but an outlaw. If he got his like I got mine he'd be at Yuma to-day. Your brother could a-told you. Dunke was at the head of the gang that held up that train. We got nabbed, me and Jim. Burch got shot in the Catalinas by one of the rangers, and Smith died of fever in Sonora. But Dunke, curse him, he sneaks out and buys the officers off with our plunder. That's what he done-- let his partners get railroaded through while he sails out slick and easy. But he made one mistake, Mr. Dunke did. He wrote me a letter and told me to keep mum and he would fix it for me to get out in a few months. I believed him, kept my mouth padlocked, and served seven years without him lifting a hand for me. Then, when I make my getaway he tries first off to shut my mouth by putting me out of business. That's what your friend done, ma'am."

"Is this true?" asked the girl whitely.

"So help me God, every word of it."

"He let my brother go to prison without trying to help him?"

"Worse than that. He sent him to prison. Jim was all right when he first met up with Dunke. It was Dunke that got him into his wild ways and led him into trouble. It was Dunke took him into the hold-up business. Hadn't been for him Jim never would have gone wrong."

She made no answer. Her mind was busy piecing out the facts of her brother's misspent life. As a little girl she remembered her big brother before he went away, good-natured, friendly, always ready to play with her. She was sure he had not been bad, only fatally weak. Even this man who had slain him was ready to testify to that.

She came back from her absorption to find Struve outlining what he meant to do.

"We'll go back this passage along the way you came. I want to find Mr. Dunke. I allow I've got something to tell him he will be right interested in hearing."

He picked up the candle and led the way along the tunnel. Margaret followed him in silence.