Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter IV. Lost!
 

After her precipitate leave-taking of the man whose team she had bought or borrowed, Margaret Kinney nursed the fires of her indignation in silence, banking them for future use against the time when she should meet him again in the event that should ever happen. She brought her whip-lash snapping above the backs of the horses, and there was that in the supple motion of the small strong wrist which suggested that nothing would have pleased her more than having this audacious Texan there in place of the innocent animals. For whatever of inherited savagery lay latent in her blood had been flogged to the surface by the circumstances into which she had been thrust. Never in all her placid life had she known the tug of passion any closer than from across the footlights of a theatre.

She had had, to be sure, one stinging shame, but it had been buried in far-away Arizona, quite beyond the ken of the convention-bound people of the little Wisconsin town where she dwelt. But within the past twelve hours Fate had taken hold of her with both hands and thrust her into Life. She sensed for the first time its roughness, its nakedness, its tragedy. She had known the sensations of a hunted wild beast, the flush of shame for her kinship to this coarse ruffian by her side, and the shock of outraged maiden modesty at kisses ravished from her by force. The teacher hardly knew herself for the same young woman who but yesterday was engrossed in multiplication tables and third readers.

A sinister laugh from the man beside her brought the girl back to the present.

She looked at him and then looked quickly away again. There was something absolutely repulsive in the creature-- in the big ears that stood out from the close-cropped head, in the fishy eyes that saw everything without ever looking directly at anything, in the crooked mouth with its irregular rows of stained teeth from which several were missing. She had often wondered about her brother, but never at the worst had she imagined anything so bad as this. The memory would be enough to give one the shudders for years.

"Guess I ain't next to all that happened there in the mesquite," he sneered, with a lift of the ugly lip.

She did not look at him. She did not speak. There seethed in her a loathing and a disgust beyond expression.

"Guess you forgot that a fellow can sometimes hear even when he can't see. Since I'm chaperooning you I'll make out to be there next time you meet a good-looking lady-killer. Funny, the difference it makes, being your brother. You ain't seen me since you was a kid, but you plumb forgot to kiss me."

There was a note in his voice she had not heard before, some hint of leering ribaldry in the thick laugh that for the first time stirred unease in her heart. She did not know that the desperate, wild-animal fear in him, so overpowering that everything else had been pushed to the background, had obscured certain phases of him that made her presence here such a danger as she could not yet conceive. That fear was now lifting, and the peril loomed imminent.

He put his arm along the back of the seat and grinned at her from his loose-lipped mouth.

"But o' course it ain't too late to begin now, my dearie."

Her fearless level eyes met squarely his shifty ones and read there something she could dread without understanding, something that was an undefined sacrilege of her sweet purity. For woman-like her instinct leaped beyond reason.

"Take down your arm," she ordered.

"Oh, I don't know, sis. I reckon your brother--"

"You're no brother of mine," she broke in. "At most it is an accident of birth I disown. I'll have no relationship with you of any sort."

"Is that why you're driving with me to Mexico?" he jeered.

"I made a mistake in trying to save you. If it were to do over again I should not lift a hand."

"You wouldn't, eh?"

There was something almost wolfish in the facial malignity that distorted him.

"Not a finger."

"Perhaps you'd give me up now if you had a chance?"

"I would if I did what was right."

"And you'd sure want to do what was right," he snarled.

"Take down your arm," she ordered again, a dangerous glitter in her eyes.

He thrust his evil face close to hers and showed his teeth in a blind rage that forgot everything else.

"Listen here, you little locoed baby. I got something to tell you that'll make your hair curl. You're right, I ain't your brother. I'm Nick Struve-- Wolf Struve if you like that better. I lied you into believing me your brother, who ain't ever been anything but a skim-milk quitter. He's dead back there in the cactus somewhere, and I killed him!"

Terror flooded her eyes. Her very breathing hung suspended. She gazed at him in a frozen fascination of horror.

"Killed him because he gave me away seven years ago and was gittin' ready to round on me again. Folks don't live long that play Wolf Struve for a lamb. A wolf! That's what I am, a born wolf, and don't you forget it."

The fact itself did not need his words for emphasis. He fairly reeked the beast of prey. She had to nerve herself against faintness. She must not swoon. She dared not.

"Think you can threaten to give me up, do you? 'Fore I'm through with you you'll wish you had never been born. You'll crawl on your knees and beg me to kill you."

Such a devil of wickedness she had never seen in human eyes before. The ruthlessness left no room for appeal. Unless the courage to tame him lay in her she was lost utterly.

He continued his exultant bragging, blatantly, ferociously.

"I didn't tell you about my escape; how a guard tried to stop me and I put the son of a gun out of business. There's a price on my head. D'ye think I'm the man to give you a chance to squeal on me? D'ye think I'll let a pink-and-white chit send me back to be strangled?" he screamed.

The stark courage in her rose to the crisis. Not an hour before she had seen the Texan cow him. He was of the kind would take the whip whiningly could she but wield it. Her scornful eyes fastened on him contemptuously, chiseled into the cur heart of him.

"What will you do?" she demanded, fronting the issue that must sooner or later rise.

The raucous jangle of his laugh failed to disturb the steadiness of her gaze. To reassure himself of his mastery he began to bluster, to threaten, turning loose such a storm of vile abuse as she had never heard. He was plainly working his nerve up to the necessary pitch.

In her first terror she had dropped the reins. Her hands had slipped unconsciously under the lap-robe. Now one of them touched something chilly on the seat beside her. She almost gasped her relief. It was the selfsame revolver with which she had tried to hold up the Texan.

In the midst of Struve's flood of invective the girl's hand leaped quickly from the lap-robe. A cold muzzle pressed against his cheek brought the convict's outburst to an abrupt close.

"If you move I'll fire," she said quietly.

For a long moment their gazes gripped, the deadly clear eyes of the young woman and the furtive ones of the miscreant. Underneath the robe she felt a stealthy movement, and cried out quickly: "Hands up!"

With a curse he threw his arms into the air.

"Jump out! Don't lower your hands!"

"My ankle," he whined.

"Jump!"

His leap cleared the wheel and threw him to the ground. She caught up the whip and slashed wildly at the horses. They sprang forward in a panic, flying wildly across the open plain. Margaret heard a revolver bark twice. After that she was so busy trying to regain control of the team that she could think of nothing else. The horses were young and full of spirit, so that she had all she could do to keep the trap from being upset. It wound in and out among the hills, taking perilous places safely to her surprise, and was at last brought to a stop only by the narrowing of a draw into which the animals had bolted.

They were quiet now beyond any chance of farther runaway, even had it been possible. Margaret dropped the lines on the dashboard and began to sob, at first in slow deep breaths and then in quicker uneven ones. Plucky as she was, the girl had had about all her nerves could stand for one day. The strain of her preparation for flight, the long night drive, and the excitement of the last two hours were telling on her in a hysterical reaction.

She wept herself out, dried her eyes with dabs of her little kerchief, and came back to a calm consideration of her situation. She must get back to Fort Lincoln as soon as possible, and she must do it without encountering the convict. For in the course of the runaway the revolver had been jolted from the trap.

Not quite sure in which direction lay the road, she got out from the trap, topped the hill to her right, and looked around. She saw in all directions nothing but rolling hilltops, merging into each other even to the horizon's edge. In her wild flight among these hills she had lost count of direction. She had not yet learned how to know north from south by the sun, and if she had it would have helped but little since she knew only vaguely the general line of their travel.

She felt sure that from the top of the next rise she could locate the road, but once there she was as uncertain as before. Before giving up she breasted a third hill to the summit. Still no signs of the road. Reluctantly she retraced her steps, and at the foot of the hill was uncertain whether she should turn to right or left. Choosing the left, from the next height she could see nothing of the team. She was not yet alarmed. It was ridiculous to suppose that she was lost. How could she be when she was within three or four hundred yards of the rig? She would cut across the shoulder into the wash and climb the hillock beyond. For behind it the team must certainly be.

But at her journey's end her eyes were gladdened by no sight of the horses. Every draw was like its neighbor, every rolling rise a replica of the next. The truth came home to a sinking heart. She was lost in one of the great deserts of Texas. She would wander for days as others had, and she would die in the end of starvation and thirst. Nobody would know where to look for her, since she had told none where she was going. Only yesterday at her boarding-house she had heard a young man tell how a tenderfoot had been found dead after he had wandered round and round in intersecting circles. She sank down and gave herself up to despair.

But not for long. She was too full of grit to give up without a long fight. How many hours she wandered Margaret Kinney did not know. The sun was high in the heavens when she began. It had given place to flooding moonlight long before her worn feet and aching heart gave up the search for some human landmark. Once at least she must have slept, for she stared up from a spot where she had sunk down to look up into a starry sky that was new to her.

The moon had sailed across the vault and grown chill and faint with dawn before she gave up, completely exhausted, and when her eyes opened again it was upon a young day fresh and sweet. She knew by this time hunger and an acute thirst. As the day increased, this last she knew must be a torment of swollen tongue and lime-kiln throat. Yesterday she had cried for help till her voice had failed. A dumb despair had now driven away her terror.

And then into the awful silence leaped a sound like a messenger of hope. It was a shot, so close that she could see the smoke rise from an arroyo near. She ran forward till she could look down into it and caught sight of a man with a dead bird in his hand. He had his back toward her and was stooping over a fire. Slithering down over the short dry grass, she was upon him almost before she could stop.

"I've been lost all night and all yesterday," she sobbed.

He snatched at the revolver lying beside him and whirled like a flash as if to meet an attack. The girl's pumping heart seemed to stand still. The man snarling at her was the convict Struve.