Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter V. Larry Neill to the Rescue
 

The snarl gave way slowly to a grim more malign than his open hostility.

"So you've been lost! And now you're found-- come safe back to your loving brother. Ain't that luck for you? Hunted all over Texas till you found him, eh? And it's a powerful big State, too."

She caught sight of something that made her forget all else.

"Have you got water in that canteen?" she asked, her parched eyes staring at it.

"Yes, dearie."

"Give it me."

He squatted tailor-fashion on the ground, put the canteen between his knees, and shoved his teeth in a crooked grin.

"Thirsty?"

"I'm dying for a drink"

"You look like a right lively corpse."

"Give it to me."

"Will you take it now or wait till you get it?"

"My throat's baked. I want water," she said hoarsely.

"Most folks want a lot they never get."

She walked toward him with her hand outstretched.

"I tell you I've got to have it."

He laughed evilly. "Water's at a premium right now. Likely there ain't enough here to get us both out of this infernal hole alive. Yes, it's sure at a premium."

He let his eye drift insolently over her and take stock of his prey, in the same feline way of a cat with a mouse, gloating over her distress and the details of her young good looks. His tainted gaze got the faint pure touch of color in her face, the reddish tinge of her wavy brown hair, the desirable sweetness of her rounded maidenhood. If her step dragged, if dusky hollows shadowed her lids, if the native courage had been washed from the hopeless eyes, there was no spring of manliness hid deep within him that rose to refresh her exhaustion. No pity or compunction stirred at her sweet helplessness.

"Do you want my money?" she asked wearily.

"I'll take that to begin with."

She tossed him her purse. "There should be seventy dollars there. May I have a drink now?"

"Not yet, my dear. First you got to come up to me and put your arms round--"

He broke off with a curse, for she was flying toward the little circle of cottonwoods some forty yards away. She had caught a glimpse of the water-hole and was speeding for it.

"Come back here," he called, and in a rage let fly a bullet after her.

She paid no heed, did not stop till she reached the spring and threw herself down full length to drink, to lave her burnt face, to drink again of the alkali brackish water that trickled down her throat like nectar incomparably delicious.

She was just rising to her feet when Struve hobbled up.

"Don't you think you can play with me, missie. When I give the word you stop in your tracks, and when I say 'Jump!' step lively."

She did not answer. Her head was lifted in a listening attitude, as if to catch some sound that came faintly to her from a distance.

"You're mine, my beauty, to do with as I please, and don't you forget it."

She did not hear him. Her ears were attuned to voices floating to her across the desert. Of course she was beginning to wander in her mind. She knew that. There could be no other human beings in this sea of loneliness. They were alone; just they two, the degenerate ruffian and his victim. Still, it was strange. She certainly had imagined the murmur of people talking. It must be the beginning of delirium.

"Do you hear me?" screamed Struve, striking her on the cheek with his fist. "I'm your master and you're my squaw."

She did not cringe as he had expected, nor did she show fight. Indeed the knowledge of the blow seemed scarcely to have penetrated her mental penumbra. She still had that strange waiting aspect, but her eyes were beginning to light with new-born hope. Something in her manner shook the man's confidence; a dawning fear swept away his bluster. He, too, was now listening intently.

Again the low murmur, beyond a possibility of doubt. Both of them caught it. The girl opened her throat in a loud cry for help. An answering shout came back clear and strong. Struve wheeled and started up the arroyo, bending in and out among the cactus till he disappeared over the brow.

Two horsemen burst into sight, galloping down the steep trail at breakneck speed, flinging down a small avalanche of shale with them. One of them caught sight of the girl, drew up so short that his horse slid to its haunches, and leaped from the saddle in a cloud of dust.

He ran toward her, and she to him, hands out to meet her rescuer.

"Why didn't you come sooner? I've waited so long," she cried pathetically, as his arms went about her.

"You poor lamb! Thank God we're in time!" was all he could say.

Then for the first time in her life she fainted.

The other rider lounged forward, a hat in his hand that he had just picked up close to the fire.

"We seem to have stampeded part of this camping party. I'll just take a run up this hill and see if I can't find the missing section and persuade it to stay a while. I don't reckon you need me hyer, do you?" he grinned, with a glance at Neill and his burden.

"All right. You'll find me here when you get back, Fraser," the other answered.

Larry carried the girl to the water-hole and set her down beside it. He sprinkled her face with water, and presently her lids trembled and fluttered open. She lay there with her head on his arm and looked at him quite without surprise.

"How did you find me?"

"Mainly luck. We followed your trail to where we found the rig. After that it was guessing where the needle was in the haystack It just happened we were cutting across country to water when we heard a shot."

"That must have been when he fired at me," she said.

"My God! Did he shoot at you?"

"Yes. Where is he now?" She shuddered.

"Cutting over the hills with Steve after him."

"Steve?"

"My friend, Lieutenant Fraser. He is an officer in the ranger force."

"Oh!" She relapsed into a momentary silence before she said: "He isn't my brother at all. He is a murderer." She gave a sudden little moan of pain as memory pierced her of what he had said. "He bragged to me that he had killed my brother. He meant to kill me, I think."

"Sho! It doesn't matter what the coyote meant. It's all over now. You're with friends."

A warm smile lit his steel-blue eyes, softened the lines of his lean, hard face. Never had shipwrecked mariner come to safer harbor than she. She knew that this slim, sun-bronzed Westerner was a man's man, that strength and nerve inhabited his sinewy frame. He would fight for her because she was a woman as long as he could stand and see.

A touch of color washed back into her cheeks, a glow of courage into her heart. "Yes, it's all over. The weary, weary hours-- and the fear-- and the pain-- and the dreadful thirst-- and worst of all, him!"

She began to cry softly, hiding her face in his coat-sleeve.

"I'm crying because-- it's all over. I'm a little fool, just as-- as you said I was."

"I didn't know you then," he smiled. "I'm right likely to make snap-shot judgments that are 'way off."

"You knew me well enough to--" She broke off in the middle, bathed in a flush of remembrance that brought her coppery head up from his arm instantly.

"Be careful. You're dizzy yet."

"I'm all right now, thank you," she answered, her embarrassed profile haughtily in the air. "But I'm ravenous for something to eat. It's been twenty-four hours since I've had a bite. That's why I'm weepy and faint. I should think you might make a snap-shot judgment that breakfast wouldn't hurt me."

He jumped up contritely. "That's right. What a goat I am!"

His long, clean stride carried him over the distance that separated him from his bronco. Out of the saddle-bags he drew some sandwiches wrapped in a newspaper.

"Here, Miss Margaret! You begin on these. I'll have coffee ready in two shakes of a cow's tail. And what do you say to bacon?"

He understood her to remark from the depths of a sandwich that she said "Amen!" to it, and that she would take everything he had and as soon as he could get it ready. She was as good as her word. He found no cause to complain of her appetite. Bacon and sandwiches and coffee were all consumed in quantities reasonable for a famished girl who had been tramping actively for a day and a night, and, since she was a child of impulse, she turned more friendly eyes on him who had appeased her appetite.

"I suppose you are a cowboy like everybody else in this country?" she ventured amiably after her hunger had become less sharp.

"No, I belong to the government reclamation service."

"Oh!" She had a vague idea she had heard of it before. "Who is it you reclaim? Indians, I suppose."

"We reclaim young ladies when we find them wandering about the desert," he smiled.

"Is that what the government pays you for?"

"Not entirely. Part of the time I examine irrigation projects and report on their feasibility. I have been known to build dams and bore tunnels,"

"And what of the young ladies you reclaim? Do you bore them?" she asked saucily.

"I understand they have hitherto always found me very entertaining," he claimed boldly, his smiling eyes on her.

"Indeed!"

"But young ladies are peculiar. Sometimes we think we're entertaining them when we ain't."

"I'm sure you are right."

"And other times they're interested when they pretend they're not."

"It must be comforting to your vanity to think that," she said coldly. For his words had recalled similar ones spoken by him twenty-four hours earlier, which in turn had recalled his unpardonable sin.

The lieutenant of rangers appeared over the hill and descended into the draw. Miss Kinney went to meet him.

"He got away?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am. I lost him in some of these hollows, or rather I never found him. I'm going to take my hawss and swing round in a circle."

"What are you going to do with me?" she smiled.

"I been thinking that the best thing would be for you to go to the Mal Pais mines with Mr. Neill."

"Who is Mr. Neill?"

"The gentleman over there by the fire."

"Must I go with him? I should feel safer in your company, lieutenant."

"You'll be safe enough in his, Miss Kinney."

"You know me then?" she asked.

"I've seen you at Fort Lincoln. You were pointed out to me once as a new teacher."

"But I don't want to go to the Mal Pais mines. I want to go to Fort Lincoln. As to this gentleman, I have no claims on him and shall not trouble him to burden himself with me."

Steve laughed. "I don't reckon he would think, it a terrible burden, ma'am. And about the Mal Pais-- this is how it is. Fort Lincoln is all of sixty miles from here as the crow flies. The mines are about seventeen. My notion was you could get there and take the stage to-morrow to your town."

"What shall I do for a horse?"

"I expect Mr. Neill will let you ride his. He can walk beside the hawss."

"That won't do at all. Why should I put him to that inconvenience? I'll walk myself."

The ranger flashed his friendly smile at her. He had an instinct that served him with women. "Any way that suits you and him suits me. I'm right sorry that I've got to leave you and take out after that hound Struve, but you may take my word for it that this gentleman will look after you all right and bring you safe to the Mal Pais."

"He is a stranger to me. I've only met him once and on that occasion not pleasantly. I don't like to put myself under an obligation to him. But of course if I must I must."

"That's the right sensible way to look at it. In this little old world we got to do a heap we don't want to do. For instance, I'd rather see you to the Mal Pais than hike over the hills after this fellow," he concluded gallantly.

Neill, who had been packing the coffee-pot and the frying-pan, now sauntered forward with his horse.

"Well, what's the program?" he wanted to know.

"It's you and Miss Kinney for the Mal Pais, me for the trail. I ain't very likely to find Mr. Struve, but you can't always sometimes tell. Anyhow, I'm going to take a shot at it," the ranger answered.

"And at him?" his friend suggested.

"Oh, I reckon not. He may be a sure-enough wolf, but I expect this ain't his day to howl."

Steve whistled to his pony, swung to the saddle when it trotted up, and waved his hat in farewell.

His "Adios!" drifted back to them from the crown of the hill just before he disappeared over its edge.