Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter XI. The Southerner Takes a Risk
 

The convict shambled forward through the tunnel till he came to a drift which ran into it at a right angle.

"Which way now?" he demanded.

"I don't know."

"Don't know," he screamed. "Didn't you just come along here? Do you want me to get lost again in this hell-hole?"

The stricken fear leaped into his face. He had forgotten her danger, forgotten everything but the craven terror that engulfed him. Looking at him, she was struck for the first time with the thought that he might be on the verge of madness.

His cry still rang through the tunnel when Margaret saw a gleam of distant light. She pointed it out to Struve, who wheeled and fastened his eyes upon it. Slowly the faint yellow candle-rays wavered toward them. A man was approaching through the gloom, a large man whom she presently recognized as Dunke. A quick gasp from the one beside her showed that he too knew the man. He took a dozen running steps forward, so that in his haste the candle flickered out.

"That you, Miss Margaret?" the mine-owner called.

Neither she nor Struve answered. The latter had stopped and was waiting tensely his enemy's approach. When he was within a few yards of the other Dunke raised his candle and peered into the blackness ahead of him.

"What's the matter? Isn't it you, Miss Peggy?"

"No, it ain't. It's your old pal, Nick Struve. Ain't you glad to see him, Joe?"

Dunke looked him over without a word. His thin lips set and his gaze grew wall-eyed. The candle passed from right to left hand.

Struve laughed evilly. "No, I'm not going to pay you that way-- not yet; nor you ain't going to rid yourself of me either. Want to know why, Mr. Millionaire Dunke, what used to be my old pal? Want to know why it ain't going to do you any good to drop that right hand any closeter to your hip pocket?"

Still Dunke said nothing, but the candle-glow that lit his face showed an ugly expression.

"Don't you whip that gun out, Joe Dunke. Don't you! 'Cause why? If you do you're a goner."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that I kept the letter you wrote me seven years ago, and have put it where it will do you no good if anything happens to me. That's why you won't draw that gun, Joe Dunke. If you do it will send you to Yuma. Millionaire you may be, but that won't keep you from wearing stripes."

Struve's voice rang exultantly. From the look in the face of his old comrade in crime who had prospered at his expense, as he chose to think, he saw that for the time being he had got the whip-hand.

There was a long silence before Dunke asked hoarsely:

"What do you want?"

"I want you to hide me. I want you to get me out of this country. I want you to divvy up with me. Didn't we grub-stake you with the haul from the Overland? Don't we go share and share alike, the two of us that's left? Ain't that fair and square? You wouldn't want to do less than right by an old pal, cap, you that are so respectable and proper now. You ain't forgot the man that lay in the ditch with you the night we held up the flyer, the man that rode beside you when you shot--"

"For God's sake don't rake up forgotten scrapes. We were all young together then. I'll do what's right by you, but you got to keep your mouth shut and let me manage this."

"The way you managed it before when you let me rot at Yuma seven years," jeered Struve.

"I couldn't help it. They were on my trail and I had to lie low. I tell you I'll pull you through if you do as I say."

"And I tell you I don't believe a word you say. You double-crossed me before and you will again if you get a chance. I'll not let you out of my sight."

"Don't be a fool, Nick. How can I help you if I can't move around to make the arrangements for running you across the line?"

"And what guarantee have I got you ain't making arrangements to have me scragged? Think I'm forgetting Saturday night?"

The girl in the blackness without the candle-shine moved slightly.

"What's that?" asked Dunke, startled.

"What's what?"

"That noise. Some one moved."

Dunke's revolver came swiftly from his pocket.

"I reckon it must a-been the girl."

"What girl? Miss Kinney?"

Dunke's hard eyes fastened on the other like steel augers.

Margaret came forward and took wraithlike shape.

"I want you to take me to Mrs. Collins, Mr. Dunke," she said.

The steel probes shifted from Struve to her.

"What did you hear, Miss Kinney? This man is a storehouse of lies. I let him run on to see how far he would go."

Struve's harsh laugh filled the tunnel.

"Take me to Mrs. Collins," she reiterated wearily.

"Not till I know what you heard," answered Dunke doggedly.

"I heard everything," she avowed boldly. "The whole wretched, miserable truth."

She would have pushed past him, but he caught her arm.

"Let me go!"

"I tell you it's all a mistake. I can explain it. Give me time."

"I won't listen, I want never to see either of you again. What have I ever done that I should be mixed up with such men?" she cried, with bitter despair.

"Don't go off half-cocked. 'Course I'll take you to Mrs. Collins if you like. But you got to listen to what I say."

Another candle glimmered dimly in the tunnel and came toward them. It presently stopped, and a voice rolled along the vault.

"Hello, there!"

Margaret would have known that voice anywhere among a thousand. Now it came to her sweet as water after a drought. She slipped past Dunke and ran stumbling through the darkness to its source.

"Mr. Neill! Mr. Neill!"

The pitiful note in her voice, which he recognized instantly, stirred him to the core. Astonished that she should be in the mine and in trouble, he dashed forward, and his candle went out in the rush. Groping in the darkness her hands encountered his. His arms closed round her, and in her need of protection that brushed aside conventions and non-essentials, the need that had spoken in her cry of relief, in her hurried flight to him, she lay panting and trembling in his arms. He held her tight, as one who would keep his own against the world.

"How did you get here-- what has happened?" he demanded.

Hurriedly she explained.

"Oh, take me away, take me away!" she concluded, nestling to him with no thought now of seeking to disguise her helpless dependence upon him, of hiding from herself the realization that he was the man into whose keeping destiny had ordained that she was to give her heart.

"All right, honey. You're sure all safe now," he said tenderly, and in the blackness his lips sought and met hers in a kiss that sealed the understanding their souls had reached.

At the sound of Neill's voice Dunke had extinguished the candle and vanished in the darkness with Struve, the latter holding him by the arm in a despairing grip. Neill shouted again and again, as he relighted his candle, but there came no answer to his calls.

"We had better make for the shaft," he said.

They set out on the long walk to the opening that led up to the light and the pure air. For a while they walked on in silence. At last he took her hand and guided her fingers across the seam on his wrist.

"It don't seem only four days since you did that, honey," he murmured.

"Did I do that?" Her voice was full of self-reproach, and before he could stop her she lifted his hand and kissed the welt.

"Don't, sweet. I deserved what I got and more. I'm ready with that apology you didn't want then, Peggy."

"But I don't want it now, either. I won't have it. Didn't I tell you I wouldn't? Besides," she added, with a little leap of laughter in her voice, "why should you ask pardon for kissing the girl you were meant to-- to----"

He finished it for her.

"To marry, Peggy. I didn't know it then, but I knew it before you said good-by with your whip."

"And I didn't know it till next morning," she said.

"Did you know it then, when you were so mean to me?"

"That was why I was so mean to you. I had to punish myself and you because I-- liked you so well."

She buried her face shyly in his coat to cover this confession.

It seemed easy for both of them to laugh over nothing in the exuberance of their common happiness. His joy pealed now delightedly.

"I can't believe it-- that four days ago you wasn't on the earth for me. Seems like you always belonged; seems like I always enjoyed your sassy ways."

"That's just the way I feel about you. It's really scandalous that in less than a week-- just a little more than half a week-- we should be engaged. We are engaged, aren't we?"

"Very much."

"Well, then-- it sounds improper, but it isn't the least bit. It's right. Isn't it?"

"It ce'tainly is."

"But you know I've always thought that people who got engaged so soon are the same kind of people that correspond through matrimonial papers. I didn't suppose it would ever happen to me."

"Some right strange things happen while a person is alive, Peggy."

"And I don't really know anything at all about you except that you say your name is Larry Neill. Maybe you are married already."

She paused, startled at the impossible thought.

"It must have happened before I can remember, then," he laughed.

"Or engaged. Very likely you have been engaged a dozen times. Southern people do, they say."

"Then I'm an exception."

"And me-- you don't know anything about me."

"A fellow has to take some risk or quit living," he told her gaily.

"When you think of my temper doesn't it make you afraid?"

"The samples I've had were surely right exhilarating," he conceded. "I'm expecting enough difference of opinion to keep life interesting."

"Well, then, if you won't be warned you'll just have to take me and risk it."

And she slipped her arm into his and held up her lips for the kiss awaiting her.