Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter II. Lieutenant Fraser Interferes.
 

The sun had declined almost to a saddle in the Cuesta del Burro when the sleeper reopened his eyes. Even before he had shaken himself free of sleep he was uneasily aware of something wrong. Hazily the sound of voices drifted to him across an immense space. Blurred figures crossed before his unfocused gaze.

The first thing he saw clearly was the roan, still grazing in the circle of its picket-rope. Beside the bronco were two men looking the animal over critically.

"Been going some," he heard one remark, pointing at the same time to the sweat-stains that streaked the shoulders and flanks.

"If he had me on his back he'd still be burning the wind, me being in his boots," returned the second, with a grating laugh, jerking his head toward the sleeper. "Whatever led the durned fool to stop this side of the line beats me."

"If he was hiking for Chihuahua he's been hitting a mighty crooked trail. I don't savvy it, him knowing the country as well as they say he does," the first speaker made answer.

The traveler's circling eye now discovered two more men, each of them covering him with a rifle. A voice from the rear assured him there was also a fifth member to the party.

"Look out! He's awake," it warned.

The young man's hand inadvertently moved toward his revolver-butt. This drew a sharp imperative order from one of the men in front.

"Throw up your hands, and damn quick!"

"You seem to have the call, gentlemen," he smiled. "Would you mind telling me what it's all about?"

"You know what it's all about as well as we do. Collect his gun, Tom."

"This hold-up business seems to be a habit in this section. Second time to-day I've been the victim of it," said the victim easily.

"It will be the last," retorted one of the men grimly.

"If you're after the mazuma you've struck a poor bank."

"You've got your nerve," cried one of the men in a rage; and another demanded: "Where did you get that hawss?"

"Why, I got it--" The young man stopped in the middle of his sentence. His jaw clamped and his eyes grew hard. "I expect you better explain what right you got to ask that question."

The man laughed without cordiality. "Seeing as I have owned it three years I allow I have some right."

"What's the use of talking? He's the man we want, broke in another impatiently.

"Who is the man you want?" asked their prisoner.

"You're the man we want, Jim Kinney."

"Wrong guess. My name is Larry Neill. I'm from the Panhandle and I've never been in this part of the country till two days ago."

"You may have a dozen names. We don't care what you call yourself. Of course you would deny being the man we're after. But that don't go with us."

"All right. Take me back to Fort Lincoln, or take me to the prison officials. They will tell you whether I am the man."

The leader of the party pounced on his slip. "Who mentioned prison? Who told you we wanted an escaped prisoner?"

"He's give himself away," triumphed the one edged Tom. "I guess that clinches it. He's riding Maloney's hawss. He's wounded; so's the man we want. He answers the description-- gray eyes, tall, slim, muscular. Same gun-- automatic Colt. Tell you there's nothin' to it, Duffield."

"If you're not Kinney, how come you with this hawss? He stole it from a barn in Fort Lincoln last night. That's known," said the leader, Duffield.

The imperilled man thought of the girl bing toward the border with her brother and the remembrance padlocked his tongue.

"Take me to the proper authorities and I'll answer questions. But, I'll not talk here. What's the use? You don't believe a word I say."

"You spoke the truth that time," said one.

"If you ever want to do any explaining now's the hour," added another.

"I'll do mine later, gentlemen."

They looked at each other and one of them spoke.

"It will be too late to explain then."

"Too late?"

Some inkling of the man's hideous meaning seared him and ran like an ice-blast through him.

"You've done all the meanness you'll ever do in this world. Poor Dave Long is the last man you'll ever kill. We're going to do justice right now."

"Dave Long! I never heard of him," the prisoner repeated mechanically. "Good God, do you think I'm a murderer?"

One of the men thrust himself forward. "We know it. Y'u and that hellish partner of yours shot him while he was locking the gate. But y'u made a mistake when y'u come to Fort Lincoln. He lived there before he went to be a guard at the Arizona penitentiary. I'm his brother. These gentlemen are his neighbors. Y'u're not going back to prison. Y'u're going to stay right here under this cottonwood."

If the extraordinary menace of the man appalled Neill he gave no sign of it. His gray eye passed from one to another of them quietly without giving any sign of the impotent tempest raging within him.

"You're going to lynch me then?"

"Y'u've called the turn."

"Without giving me a chance to prove my innocence?"

"Without giving y'u a chance to escape or sneak back to the penitentiary."

The thing was horribly unthinkable. The warm mellow afternoon sunshine wrapped them about. The horses grazed with quiet unconcern. One of these hard-faced frontiersmen was chewing tobacco with machine-like regularity. Another was rolling a cigarette. There was nothing of dramatic effect. Not a man had raised his voice. But Neill knew there was no appeal. He had come to the end of the passage through a horrible mistake. He raged in bitter resentment against his fate, against these men who stood so quietly about him ready to execute it, most of all against the girl who had let him sacrifice himself by concealing the vital fact that her brother had murdered a guard to effect his escape. Fool that he had been, he had stumbled into a trap, and she had let him do it without a word of warning. Wild, chaotic thoughts crowded his brain furiously.

But the voice with which he addressed them was singularly even and colorless.

"I am a stranger to this country. I was born in Tennessee, brought up in the Panhandle. I'm an irrigation engineer by profession. This is my vacation. I'm headed now for the Mal Pais mines. Friends of mine are interested in a property there with me and I have been sent to look the ground over and make a report. I never heard of Kinney till to-day. You've got the wrong man, gentlemen."

"We'll risk it," laughed one brutally. "Bring that riata, Tom."

Neill did not struggle or cry out frantically. He stood motionless while they adjusted the rope round his bronzed throat. They had judged him for a villain; they should at least know him a man. So he stood there straight and lithe, wide-shouldered and lean-flanked, a man in a thousand. Not a twitch of the well-packed muscles, not a quiver of the eyelash nor a swelling of the throat betrayed any fear. His cool eyes were quiet and steady.

"If you want to leave any message for anybody I'll see it's delivered," promised Duffield.

"I'll not trouble you with any."

"Just as you like."

"He didn't give poor Dave any time for messages," cried Tom Long bitterly.

"That's right," assented another with a curse.

It was plain to the victim they were spurring their nerves to hardihood.

"Who's that?" cried one of the men, pointing to a rider galloping toward them.

The newcomer approached rapidly, covered by their weapons, and flung himself from his pony as he dragged it to a halt beside the group.

"Steve Fraser," cried Duffield in surprise, and added, "He's an officer in the rangers."

"Right, gentlemen. Come to claim my prisoner," said the ranger promptly.

"Y'u can't have him, Steve. We took him and he's got to hang."

The lieutenant of rangers shook his dark curly head.

"Won't do, Duffield. Won't do at all," he said decisively. "You'd ought to know law's on top in Texas these days."

Tom Long shouldered his way to the front. "Law! Where was the law when this ruffian Kinney shot down my poor brother Dave? I guess a rope and a cottonwood's good enough law for him. Anyhow, that's what he gits."

Fraser, hard-packed, lithe, and graceful, laid a friendly hand on the other's shoulder and smiled sunnily at him.

"I know how you feel, Tom. We all thought a heap of Dave and you're his brother. But Dave died for the law. Both you boys have always stood for order. He'd be troubled if he knew you were turned enemy to it on his account."

"I'm for justice, Steve. This skunk deserves death and I'm going to see he gits it."

"No, Tom."

"I say yes. Y'u ain't sitting in this game, Steve."

"I reckon I'll have to take a hand then."

The ranger's voice was soft and drawling, but his eyes were indomitably steady. Throughout the Southwest his reputation for fearlessness was established even among a population singularly courageous. The audacity of his daredevil recklessness was become a proverb.

"We got a full table. Better ride away and forget it," said another.

"That ain't what I'm paid for, Jack," returned Fraser good-naturedly. "Better turn him over to me peaceable, boys. He'll get what's coming to him all right."

"He'll get it now, Steve, without any help of yours. We don't aim to allow any butting in."

"Don't you?"

There was a flash of steel as the ranger dived forward. Next instant he and the prisoner stood with their backs to the cottonwood, a revolver having somehow leaped from its scabbard to his hand. His hunting-knife had sheared at a stroke the riata round the engineer's neck.

"Take it easy, boys," urged Fraser, still in his gentle drawl, to the astonished vigilantes whom his sudden sally had robbed of their victim. "Think about it twice. We'll all be a long time dead. No use in hurrying the funerals."

Nevertheless he recognized battle as inevitable. Friends of his though they were, he knew these sturdy plainsmen would never submit to be foiled in their purpose by one man. In the momentary silence before the clash the quiet voice of the prisoner made itself heard.

"Just a moment, gentlemen. I don't want you spilling lead over me. I'm the wrong man, and I can prove it if you'll give me time. Here's the key to my room at the hotel in San Antonio. In my suit-case you'll find letters that prove--"

"We don't need them. I've got proof right here," cut in Fraser, remembering.

He slipped a hand into his coat pocket and drew out two photographs. "Boys, here are the pictures and descriptions of the two men that escaped from Yuma the other day. I hadn't had time to see this gentleman before he spoke, being some busy explaining the situation to you, but a blind jackass could see he don't favor either Kinney or Struve, You're sure barking up the wrong tree."

The self-appointed committee for the execution of justice and the man from the Panhandle looked the prison photographs over blankly. Between the hard, clean-cut face of their prisoner and those that looked at them from the photographs it was impossible to find any resemblance. Duffield handed the prints back with puzzled chagrin.

"I guess you're right, Steve. But I'd like this gentleman to explain how come he to be riding the horse one of these miscreants stole from Maloney's barn last night."

Steve looked at the prisoner. "It's your spiel, friend," he said.

"All right. I'll tell you some facts. Just as I was coming down from the Roskruge range this mo'ning I was held up for my team. One of these fellows-- the one called Kinney-- had started from Fort Lincoln on this roan here, but he was wounded and broke down. There was some gun-play, and he gave me this scratch on the cheek. The end of it was that he took my team and left me with his worn-out bronc. I plugged on all day with the hawss till about three mebbe, then seeing it was all in I unsaddled and picketed. I lay down and dropped asleep. Next I knew the necktie-party was in session."

"What time was it y'u met this fellow Kinney?" asked Long sharply.

"Must have been about nine or nine-thirty I judge."

"And it's five now. That's eight hours' start, and four more before we can cut his trail on Roskruge. By God, we've lost him!"

"Looks like," agreed another ruefully.

"Make straight for the Arivaca cut-off and you ought to stand a show," suggested Fraser.

"That's right. If we ride all night, might beat him to it" Each of the five contributed a word of agreement.

Five minutes later the Texan and the ranger watched a dust-cloud drifting to the south. In it was hidden the posse disappearing over the hilltop.

Steve grinned. "I hate to disappoint the boys. They're so plumb anxious. But I reckon I'll strike the telephone line and send word to Moreno for one of the rangers to cut out after Kinney. Going my way, seh?"

"If you're going mine."

"I reckon I am. And just to pass the time you might tell me the real story of that hold-up while we ride."

"The real story?"

"Well, I don't aim to doubt your word, but I reckon you forgot to tell some of it." He turned on the other his gay smile. "For instance, seh, you ain't asking me to believe that you handed over your rig to Kinney so peaceful and that he went away and clean forgot to unload from you that gun you pack."

The eyes of the two met and looked into each other's as clear and straight as Texas sunshine. Slowly Neill's relaxed into a smile.

"No, I won't ask you to believe that. I owe you something because you saved my life--"

"Forget it," commanded the lieutenant crisply.

"And I can't do less than tell you the whole story."

He told it, yet not the whole of it either; for there was one detail he omitted completely. It had to do with the cause for existence of the little black-and-blue bruise under his right eye and the purple ridge that seamed his wrist. Nor with all his acuteness could Stephen Fraser guess that the one swelling had been made by a gold ring on the clenched fist of an angry girl held tight in Larry Neill's arms, the other by the lash of a horsewhip wielded by the same young woman.