Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter III. A Discovery
 

The roan, having been much refreshed by a few hours on grass, proved to be a good traveller. The two men took a road-gait and held it steadily till they reached a telephone-line which stretched across the desert and joined two outposts of civilization. Steve strapped on his climbing spurs and went up a post lightly with his test outfit. In a few minutes he had Moreno on the wire and was in touch with one of his rangers.

"Hello! This you, Ferguson? This is Fraser. No, Fraser-- Lieutenant Fraser. Yes. How many of the boys can you get in touch with right away? Two? Good. I want you to cover the Arivaca cut-off. Kinney is headed that way in a rig. His sister is with him. She is not to be injured under any circumstances. Understand? Wire me at the Mal Pais mines to-morrow your news. By the way, Tom Long and some of the boys are headed down that way with notions of lynching Kinney. Dodge them if you can and rush your man up to the Mal Pais. Good-bye."

"Suppose they can't dodge them?" ventured Neill after Steve had rejoined him.

"I reckon they can. If not-- well, my rangers are good boys; I expect they won't give up a prisoner."

"I'm right glad to find you are going to the Mal Pais mines with me, lieutenant. I wasn't expecting company on the way."

"I'll bet a dollar Mex against two plunks gold that you're wondering whyfor I'm going."

Larry laughed. "You're right. I was wondering."

"Well, then, it's this way. What with all these boys on Kinney's trail he's as good as rounded up. Fact is, Kinney's only a weak sister anyhow. He turned State's witness at the trial, and it was his testimony that convicted Struve. I know something about this because I happened to be the man that caught Struve. I had just joined the rangers. It was my first assignment. The other three got away. Two of them escaped and the third was not tried for lack of sufficient evidence. Now, then: Kinney rides the rods from Yuma to Marfa and is now or had ought to be somewhere in this valley between Posa Buena and Taylor's ranch. But where is Struve, the hardier ruffian of the two? He ain't been seen since they broke out. He sure never reached Ft. Lincoln. My notion is that he dropped off the train in the darkness about Casa Grande, then rolled his tail for the Mal Pais country. Your eyes are asking whys mighty loud, my friend; and my answer is that there's a man up there mebbe who has got to hide Struve if he shows up. That's only a guess, but it looks good to me. This man was the brains of the whole outfit, and folks say that he's got cached the whole haul the gang made from that S. P. hold-up. What's more, he scattered gold so liberal that his name wasn't even mentioned at the trial. He's a big man now, a millionaire copper king and into gold-mines up to the hocks. In the Southwest those things happen. It doesn't always do to look too closely at a man's past.

"We'll say Struve drops in on him and threatens to squeak. Mebbe he has got evidence; mebbe he hasn't. Anyhow, our big duck wants to forget the time he was wearing a mask and bending a six-gun for a living. Also and moreover, he's right anxious to have other folks get a chance to forget. From what I can hear he's clean mashed on some girl at Amarillo, or maybe it's Fort Lincoln. See what a twist Strove's got on him if he can slip into the Mal Pais country on the q. t."

"And you're going up there to look out for him?"

"I'm going in to take a casual look around. There's no telling what a man might happen onto accidentally if he travels with his ear to the ground."

The other nodded. He could now understand easily why Fraser was going into the Mal Pais country, but he could not make out why the ranger, naturally a man who lived under his own hat and kept his own counsel, had told him so much as he had. The officer shortly relieved his mind on this point.

"I may need help while I'm there. May I call on you if I do, seh?"

Neill felt his heart warm toward this hard-faced, genial frontiersman, who knew how to judge so well the timbre of a casual acquaintance.

"You sure may, lieutenant."

"Good. I'll count on you then."

So, in these few words, the compact of friendship and alliance was sealed between them. Each of them was strangely taken with the other, but it is not the way of the Anglo-Saxon fighting man to voice his sentiment. Though each of them admired the stark courage and the flawless fortitude he knew to dwell in the other, impassivity sat on their faces like an ice-mask. For this is the hall-mark of the Southwest, that a man must love and hate with the same unchanging face of iron, save only when a woman is in consideration.

They were to camp that night by Cottonwood Spring, and darkness caught them still some miles from their camp. They were on no road, but were travelling across country through washes and over countless hills. The ranger led the way, true as an arrow, even after velvet night had enveloped them.

"It must be right over this mesa among the cottonwoods you see rising from that arroyo," he announced at last.

He had scarcely spoken before they struck a trail that led them direct to the spring. But as they were descending this in a circle Fraser's horse shied.

"Hyer you, Pinto! What's the matter with--"

The ranger cut his sentence in two and slid from the saddle. When his companion reached him and drew rein the ranger was bending over a dark mass stretched across the trail. He looked up quietly.

"Man's body," he said briefly.

"Dead?"

"Yes."

Neill dismounted and came forward. The moon-crescent was up by now and had lit the country with a chill radiance. The figure was dressed in the coarse striped suit of a convict.

"I don't savvy this play," Fraser confessed softly to himself.

"Do you know him?"

"Suppose you look at him and see if you know him."

Neill looked into the white face and shook his head.

"No, I don't know him, but I suppose it is Struve."

From his pocket the ranger produced a photograph and handed it to him.

"Hyer, I'll strike a match and you'll see better."

The match flared up in the slight breeze and presently went out, but not before Neill had seen that it was the face of the man who lay before them.

"Did you see the name under the picture, seh?"

"No."

Another match flared and the man from the Panhandle read a name, but it was not the one he had expected to see. The words printed there were "James Kinney."

"I don't understand. This ain't Kinney. He is a heavy-set man with a villainous face. There's some mistake."

"There ce'tainly is, but not at this end of the line. This is Kinney all right. I've seen him at Yuma. He was heading for the Mal Pais country and he died on the way. See hyer. Look at these soaked bandages. He's been wounded-- shot mebbe-- and the wound broke out on him again so that he bled to death."

"It's all a daze to me. Who is the other man if he isn't Kinney?"

"We're coming to that. I'm beginning to see daylight," said Steve, gently. "Let's run over this thing the way it might be. You've got to keep in mind that this man was weak, one of those spineless fellows that stronger folks lead around by the nose. Well, they make their getaway at Yuma after Struve has killed a guard. That killing of Dave Long shakes Kinney up a lot, he being no desperado but only a poor lost-dog kind of a guy. Struve notices it and remembers that this fellow weakened before. He makes up his mind to take no chances. From that moment he watches for a chance to make an end of his pardner. At Casa Grande they drop off the train they're riding and cut across country toward the Mal Pais. Mebbe they quarrel or mebbe Struve gets his chance and takes it. But after he has shot his man he sees he has made a mistake. Perhaps they were seen travelling in that direction. Anyhow, he is afraid the body will be found since he can't bury it right. He changes his plan and takes a big chance; cuts back to the track, boards a freight, and reaches Fort Lincoln."

"My God!" cried the other, startled for once out of his calm.

The officer nodded. "You're on the trail right enough. I wish we were both wrong, but we ain't."

"But surely she would have known he wasn't her brother, surely--"

The ranger shook his head. "She hadn't seen the black sheep since she was a kid of about seven. How would she know what he looked like? And Struve was primed with all the facts he had heard Kinney blat out time and again. She wasn't suspecting any imposition and he worked her to a fare-you-well."

Larry Neill set his teeth on a wave of icy despair.

"And she's in that devil's power. She would be as safe in a den of rattlers. To think that I had my foot on his neck this mo'ning and didn't break it."

"She's safe so long as she is necessary to him. She's in deadly peril as soon as he finds her one witness too many. If he walks into my boys' trap at the Arivaca cut-off, all right. If not, God help her! I've shut the door to Mexico and safety in his face. He'll strike back for the Mal Pais country. It's his one chance, and he'll want to travel light and fast."

"If he starts back Tom Long's party may get him."

"That's one more chance for her, but it's a slim one. He'll cut straight across country; they're following the trail. No, seh, our best bet is my rangers. They'd ought to land him, too."

"Oh, ought to," derided the other impatiently. "Point is, if they don't. How are we going to save her? You know this country. I don't."

"Don't tear your shirt, amigo," smiled the ranger. "We'll arrive faster if we don't go off half-cocked. Let's picket the broncs, amble down to the spring, and smoke a cigaret. We've got to ride twenty miles for fresh hawsses and these have got to have a little rest."

They unsaddled and picketed, then strolled to the spring.

"I've been thinking that maybe we have made a mistake. Isn't it possible the man with Miss Kinney is not Struve?" asked Neill.

"That's easy proved. You saw him this mo'ning." The lieutenant went down into his pocket once more for a photograph. "Does this favor the man with Miss Kinney?"

Under the blaze of another match, shielded by the ranger s hands, Larry looked into the scowling, villainous face he had seen earlier in the day. There could be no mistaking those leering, cruel eyes nor the ratlike, shifty look of the face, not to mention the long scar across it. His heart sank.

"It's the man."

"Don't you blame yourself for not putting his lights out. How could you tell who he was?"

"I knew he was a ruffian, hide and hair."

"But you thought he was her brother and that's a whole lot different. What do you say to grubbing here? We've got to go to the Halle ranch for hawsses and it's a long jog."

They lit a fire and over their coffee discussed plans. In the midst of these the Southerner picked up idly a piece of wrapping-paper. Upon it was pencilled a wavering scrawl:

Bleeding has broke out again. Can't stop it. Struve shot me and left me for dead ten miles back. I didn't kill the guard or know he meant to. J. KINNEY.

Neill handed the paper to the ranger, who read it through, folded it, and gave it back to the other.

"Keep that paper. We may need it." His grave eyes went up the trail to where the dark figure lay motionless in the cold moonlight. "Well, he's come to the end of the trail-- the only end he could have reached. He wasn't strong enough to survive as a bad man. Poor devil!"

They buried him in a clump of cottonwoods and left a little pile of rocks to mark the spot.