Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter XIII. Steve Offers Congratulations
 

When Fraser reached the dining-room for breakfast his immediate family had finished and departed. He had been up till four o'clock and his mother had let him sleep as long as he would. Now, at nine, he was up again and fresh as a daisy after a morning bath.

He found at the next table two other late breakfasters.

"Mo'ning, Miss Kinney. How are you, Tennessee?" he said amiably.

Both Larry and the young woman admitted good health, the latter so blushingly that Steve's keen eyes suggested to him that he might not be the only one with news to tell this morning.

"What's that I hear about Struve and Dunke?" asked Neill at once.

"Oh, you've heard it. Well, it's true. I judge Dunke was arranging to get him out of the country. Anyhow, Johnson says he took the fellow out to his surrey from the shaft-house of the Mal Pais under his gun. A moment later the engineer heard a shot and ran out. Dunke lay in the road dead, with a knife through his heart. We found the surrey down in the canyon. It had gone over the edge of the road. Both the hawsses were dead, and Struve had disappeared. How the thing happened I reckon never will be known unless the convict tells it. My guess would be that Dunke attacked him and the convict was just a little bit more than ready for him."

"Have you any idea where Struve is?"

"The obvious guess would be that he is heading for Mexico. But I've got another notion. He knows that's where we will be looking for him. His record shows that he used to trail with a bunch of outlaws up in Wyoming. That was most twenty years ago. His old pals have disappeared long since. But he knows that country up there. He'll figure that down here he's sure to be caught and hanged sooner or later. Up there he'll have a chance to hide under another name."

Neill nodded. "That's a big country up there and the mountains are full of pockets. If he can reach there he will be safe."

"Maybe," the ranger amended quietly.

"Would you follow him?"

The officer's opaque gaze met the eyes of his friend. "We don't aim to let a prisoner make his getaway once we get our hands on him. Wyoming ain't so blamed far to travel after him-- if I learn he is there."

For a moment all of them were silent. Each of them was thinking of the fellow and the horrible trail of blood he had left behind him in one short week. Margaret looked at her lover and shuddered. She had not the least doubt that this man sitting opposite them would bring the criminal back to his punishment, but the sinister grotesque shadow of the convict seemed to fall between her and her happiness.

Larry caught her hand under the table and gave it a little pressure of reassurance. He spoke in a low voice. "This hasn't a thing to do with us, Peggy-- not a thing. They were already both out of your life."

"Yes, I know, but--"

"There aren't any buts." He smiled warmly, and his smile took the other man into their confidence. "You've been having a nightmare. That's past. See the sunshine on those hills. It's bright mo'ning, girl. A new day for you and for me."

Steve grinned. "This is awful sudden, Tennessee. You must a-been sawing wood right industrious on the hawssback ride and down in the tunnel. I expect there wasn't any sunshine down there, was there?"

"You go to grass, Steve."

"No, Tennessee is ce'tainly no two-bit man. Lemme see. One-- two-- three-- four days. That's surely going some," the ranger soliloquized.

"Mr. Fraser," the young woman reproved with a blush.

"Don't mind him, Peggy. He's merely jealous," came back Larry.

"Course I'm jealous. Whyfor not? What license have these Panhandle guys to come in and tote off our girls? But don't mind me. I'll pay strict attention to my ham and eggs and not see a thing that's going on."

"Lieutenant!" Miss Margaret was both embarrassed and shocked.

"Want me to shut my eyes, Tennessee?"

"Next time we get engaged you'll not be let in on the ground floor," Neill predicted.

"Four days! My, my! If that ain't rapid transit for fair!"

"You're a man of one idea, Steve. Cayn't you see that the fact's the main thing, not the time it took to make it one?"

"And counting out Sunday and Monday, it only leaves two days."

"Don't let that interfere with your breakfast. You haven't been elected timekeeper for this outfit, you know!"

Fraser recovered from his daze and duly offered congratulations to the one and hopes for unalloyed joy to the other party to the engagement.

"But four days!" he added in his pleasant drawl. "That's sure some precipitous. Just to look at him, ma'am"-- this innocently to Peggy-- "a man wouldn't think he had it in him to locate, stake out, and do the necessary assessment work on such a rich claim as the Margaret Kinney all in four days. Mostly a fellow don't strike such high-grade ore without a lot of--"

"That will do for you, lieutenant," interrupted Miss Kinney, with merry, sparkling eyes. "You needn't think we're going to let you trail this off into a compliment now. I'm going to leave you and see what Mrs. Collins says. She won't sit there and parrot 'Four days' for the rest of her life."

With which Mistress Peggy sailed from the room in mock hauteur.

When Larry came back from closing the door after her, his friend fell upon him with vigorous. hands to the amazement of Wun Hop, the waiter.

"You blamed lucky son of a gun," he cried exuberantly between punches. "You've ce'tainly struck pure gold, Tennessee. Looks like Old Man Good Luck has come home to roost with you, son."

The other, smiling, shook hands with him. "I'm of that opinion myself, Steve," he said.