Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter VI. Somebody's Acting Mighty Foolish.
 

Larry Neill watched him vanish and then turned smiling to Miss Kinney.

"All aboard for the Mal Pais," he sang out cheerfully.

Too cheerfully perhaps. His assurance that all was well between them chilled her manner. He might forgive himself easily if he was that sort of man; she would at least show him she was no party, to it. He had treated her outrageously, had manhandled her with deliberate intent to insult. She would show him no one alive could treat her so and calmly assume to her that it was all right.

Her cool eyes examined the horse, and him.

"I don't quite see how you expect to arrange it, Mr. Neill. That is your name, isn't it?" she added indifferently.

"That's my name-- Larry Neill. Easiest thing in the world to arrange. We ride pillion if it suits you; if not, I'll walk."

"Neither plan suits me," she announced curtly, her gaze on the far-away hills.

He glanced at her in quick surprise, then made the mistake of letting himself smile at her frosty aloofness instead of being crestfallen by it. She happened to look round and catch that smile before he could extinguish it. Her petulance hardened instantly to a resolution.

"I don't quite know what we're going to do about it-- unless you walk," he proposed, amused at the absurdity of his suggestion.

"That's just what I'm going to do," she retorted promptly.

"What!" He wheeled on her with an astonished smile on his face.

This served merely to irritate her.

"I said I was going to walk."

"Walk seventeen miles?"

"Seventy if I choose."

"Nonsense! Of course you won't."

Her eyebrows lifted in ironic demurrer. "I think you must let me be the judge of that," she said gently.

"Walk!" he reiterated. "Why, you're walked out. You couldn't go a mile. What do you take me for? Think I'm going to let you come that on me."

"I don't quite see how you can help it, Mr. Neill," she answered.

"Help it! Why, it ain't reasonable. Of course you'll ride."

"Of course I won't."

She set off briskly, almost jauntily, despite her tired feet and aching limbs.

"Well, if that don't beat--" He broke off to laugh at the situation. After she had gone twenty steps he called after her in a voice that did not suppress its chuckle: "You ain't going the right direction, Miss Kinney."

She whirled round on him in anger. How dared he laugh at her?

"Which is the right way?" she choked.

"North by west is about it."

She was almost reduced to stamping her foot.

Without condescending to ask more definite instructions she struck off at haphazard, and by chance guessed right. There was nothing for it but to pursue. Wherefore the man pursued. The horse at his heels hampered his stride, but he caught up with her soon.

"Somebody's acting mighty foolish," he said.

She said nothing very eloquently.

"If I need punishing, ma'am, don't punish yourself, but me. You ain't able to walk and that's a fact."

She gave her silent attention strictly to the business of making progress through the cactus and the sand.

"Say I'm all you think I am. You can trample on me proper after we get to the Mal Pais. Don't have to know me at all if you don't want to. Won't you ride, ma'am? Please!"

His distress filled her with a fierce delight. She stumbled defiantly forward.

He pondered a while before he asked quietly:

"Ain't you going to ride, Miss Kinney?"

"No, I'm not. Better go on. Pray don't let me detain you."

"All right. See that peak with the spur to it? Well, you keep that directly in line and make straight for it. I'll say good-by now, ma'am. I got to hurry to be in time for dinner. I'll send some one out from the camp to meet you that ain't such a villain as I am."

He swung to the saddle, put spurs to his pony, and cantered away. She could scarce believe it, even when he rode straight over the hill without a backward glance. He would never leave her. Surely he would not do that. She could never reach the camp, and he knew it. To be left alone in the desert again; the horror of it broke her down, but not immediately. She went proudly forward with her head in the air at first. He might look round. Perhaps he was peeping at her from behind some cholla. She would not gratify him by showing any interest in his whereabouts. But presently she began to lag, to scan draws and mesas anxiously for him, even to call aloud in an ineffective little voice which the empty hills echoed faintly. But from him there came no answer.

She sat down and wept in self-pity. Of course she had told him to go, but he knew well enough she did not mean it. A magnanimous man would have taken a better revenge on an exhausted girl than to leave her alone in such a spot, and after she had endured such a terrible experience as she had. She had read about the chivalry of Western men. Yet these two had ridden away on their horses and left her to live or die as chance willed it.

"Now, don't you feel so bad, Miss Margaret. I wasn't aiming really to leave you, of course," a voice interrupted her sobs to say.

She looked through the laced fingers that covered her face, mightily relieved, but not yet willing to confess it. The engineer had made a circuit and stolen up quietly behind.

"Oh! I thought you had gone," she said as carelessly as she could with a voice not clear of tears.

"Were you crying because you were afraid I hadn't?" he asked.

"I ran a cactus into my foot. And I didn't say anything about crying."

"Then if your foot is hurt you will want to ride. That seventeen miles might be too long a stroll before you get through with it."

"I don't know what I'll do yet," she answered shortly.

"I know what you'll do."

"Yes?"

"You'll quit your foolishness and get on this hawss."

She flushed angrily. "I won't!"

He stooped down, gathered her up in his arms, and lifted her to the saddle.

"That's what you're going to do whether you like it or not," he informed her.

"How are you going to make me stay here, now you have put me here?"

"I'm going to get on behind and hold you if it's necessary."

He was sensible enough of the folly of it all, but he did not see what else he could do. She had chosen to punish him through herself in a way that was impossible. It was a childish thing to do, born of some touch of hysteria her experience had induced, and he could only treat her as a child till she was safely back in civilization.

Their wills met in their eyes, and the man's, masculine and dominant, won the battle. The long fringe of hers fell to the soft cheeks.

"It won't be at all necessary," she promised.

"Are you sure?"

"Quite sure."

"That's the way to talk."

"If you care to know," she boiled over, "I think you the most hateful man I ever met."

"That's all right," he grinned ruefully. "You're the most contrairy woman I ever bumped into, so I reckon honors are easy."

He strode along beside the horse, mile after mile, in a silence which neither of them cared to break. The sap of youth flowed free in him, was in his elastic tread, in the set of his broad shoulders, in the carriage of his small, well-shaped head. He was as lean-loined and lithe as a panther, and his stride ate up the miles as easily.

They nooned at a spring in the dry wash of Bronco Creek. After he had unsaddled and picketed he condescended to explain to her.

"We'll stay here three hours or mebbe four through the heat of the day."

"Is it far now?" she asked wearily.

"Not more than seven miles I should judge. Are you about all in?"

"Oh, no! I'm all right, thank you," she said, with forced sprightliness.

His shrewd, hard gaze went over her and knew better.

"You lie down under those live-oaks and I'll get some grub ready."

"I'll cook lunch while you lie down. You must be tired walking so far through the sun," said Miss Kinney.

"Have I got to pick you up again and carry you there?"

"No, you haven't. You keep your hands off me," she flashed.

But nevertheless she betook herself to the shade of the live-oaks and lay down. When he went to call her for lunch he found her fast asleep with her head pillowed on her arm. She looked so haggard that he had not the heart to rouse her.

"Let her sleep. It will be the making of her. She's fair done. But ain't she plucky? And that spirited! Ready to fight so long as she can drag a foot. And her so sorter slim and delicate. Funny how she hangs onto her grudge against me. Sho! I hadn't ought to have kissed her, but I'll never tell her so."

He went back to his coffee and bacon, dined, and lay down for a siesta beneath a cottonwood some distance removed from the live-oaks where Miss Kinney reposed. For two or three hours he slept soundly, having been in the saddle all night. It was mid-afternoon when he awoke, and the sun was sliding down the blue vault toward the sawtoothed range to the west. He found the girl still lost to the world in deep slumber.

The man from the Panhandle looked across the desert that palpitated with heat, and saw through the marvelous atmosphere the smoke of the ore-mills curling upward. He was no tenderfoot, to suppose that ten minutes' brisk walking would take him to them. He guessed the distance at about two and a half hour's travel.

"This is ce'tainly a hot evening. I expect we better wait till sundown before moving," he said aloud.

Having made up his mind, it was characteristic of him that he was asleep again in five minutes. This time she wakened before him, to look into a wonderful sea of gold that filled the crotches of the hills between the purple teeth. No sun was to be seen-- it had sunk behind the peaks-- but the trail of its declension was marked by that great pool of glory into which she gazed.

Margaret crossed the wash to the cottonwood under which her escort was lying. He was fast asleep on his back, his gray shirt open at the bronzed, sinewy neck. The supple, graceful lines of him were relaxed, but even her inexperience appreciated the splendid shoulders and the long rippling muscles. The maidenly instinct in her would allow but one glance at him, and she was turning away when his eyes opened.

Her face, judging from its tint, might have absorbed some of the sun-glow into which she had been gazing.

"I came to see if you were awake," she explained.

"Yes, ma'am, I am," he smiled.

"I was thinking that we ought to be going. It will be dark before we reach Mal Pais."

He leaped to his feet and faced her.

"C'rect."

"Are you hungry?"

"Yes."

He relit the fire and put on the coffee-pot before he saddled the horse. She ate and drank hurriedly, soon announcing herself ready for the start.

She mounted from his hand; then without asking any questions he swung to a place behind her.

"We'll both ride," he said.

The stars were out before they reached the outskirts of the mining-camp. At the first house of the rambling suburbs Neill slipped to the ground and walked beside her toward the old adobe plaza of the Mexican town

People passed them on the run, paying no attention to them, and others dribbled singly or in small groups from the houses and saloons. All of them were converging excitedly to the plaza.

"Must be something doing here," said her guide. "Now I wonder what!"

Round the next turn he found his answer. There must have been present two or three hundred men, mostly miners, and their gazes all focussed on two figures which stood against a door at the top of five or six steps. One of the forms was crouched on its knees, abject, cringing terror stamped on the white villainous face upturned to the electric light above. But the other was on its feet, a revolver in each hand, a smile of reckless daring on the boyish countenance that just now stood for law and order in Mal Pais.

The man beside the girl read the situation at a glance. The handcuffed figure groveling on the steps belonged to the murderer Struve, and over him stood lightly the young ranger Steve Fraser. He was standing off a mob that had gathered to lynch his prisoner, and one glance at him was enough to explain how he had won his reputation as the most dashing and fearless member of a singularly efficient force. For plain to be read as the danger that confronted him was the fact that peril was as the breath of life to his nostrils.