Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter VII. Enter Mr. Dunke
 

"He's my prisoner and you can't have him," the girl heard the ranger say.

The answer came in a roar of rage. "By God, we'll show you!"

"If you want him, take him. But don't come unless you are ready to pay the price!" warned the officer.

He was bareheaded and his dark-brown curly hair crisped round his forehead engagingly. Round his right hand was tied a blood-stained handkerchief. A boy he looked, but his record was a man's, and so the mob that swayed uncertainly below him knew. His gray eyes were steady as steel despite the fire that glowed in them. He stood at ease, with nerve unshaken, the curious lifted look of a great moment about the poise of his graceful figure.

"It is Lieutenant Fraser," cried Margaret, but as she looked down she missed her escort.

An instant, and she saw him. He was circling the outskirts of the crowd at a run. For just a heart-beat she wondered what he was about, but her brain told her before her eye. He swung in toward the steps, shoulders down, and bored a way through the stragglers straight to the heart of the turmoil. Taking the steps in two jumps, he stood beside the ranger.

"Hello, Tennessee," grinned that young man. "Come to be a pall-bearer?"

"Hello, Texas! Can't say, I'm sure. Just dropped in to see what's doing."

Steve's admiring gaze approved him a man from the ground up. But the ranger only laughed and said: "The band's going to play a right lively tune, looks like."

The man from the Panhandle had his revolvers out already. "Yes, there will be a hot time in the old town to-night, I shouldn't wonder."

But for the moment the attackers were inclined to parley. Their leader stepped out and held up a hand for a suspension of hostilities. He was a large man, heavily built, and powerful as a bear. There was about him an air of authority, as of one used to being obeyed. He was dressed roughly enough in corduroy and miner's half-leg boots, but these were of the most expensive material and cut. His cold gray eye and thin lips denied the manner of superficial heartiness he habitually carried. If one scratched the veneer of good nature it was to find a hard selfishness that went to his core.

"It's Mr. Dunke!" the young school-teacher cried aloud in surprise.

"I've got something to say to you, Mr. Lieutenant Ranger," he announced, with importance.

"Uncork it," was Fraser's advice.

"We don't want to have any trouble with you, but we're here for business. This man is a cold-blooded murderer and we mean to do justice on him."

Steve laughed insolently. "If all them that hollers for justice the loudest got it done to them, Mr. Dunke, there'd be a right smart shrinkage in the census returns."

Dunke's eye gleamed with anger. "We're not here to listen to any smart guys, sir. Will you give up Struve to us or will you not?"

"That's easy. I will not."

The mob leader turned to the Tennessean. "Young man, I don't know who you are, but if you mean to butt into a quarrel that ain't yours all I've got to say is that you're hunting an early grave."

"We'll know about that later, seh."

"You stand pat, do you?"

"Well, seh, I draw to a pair that opens the pot anyhow," answered Larry, with a slight motion of his weapons.

Dunke fell back into the mob, a shot rang out into the night, and the crowd swayed forward. But at that instant the door behind Fraser swung open. A frightened voice sounded in his ear.

"Quick, Steve!"

The ranger slewed his head, gave an exclamation of surprise, and hurriedly threw his prisoner into the open passage.

"Back, Larry! Lively, my boy!" he ordered.

Neill leaped back in a spatter of bullets that rained round him. Next moment the door was swung shut again.

"You all right, Nell?" asked Fraser quickly of the young woman who had opened the door, and upon her affirmative reply he added: "Everybody alive and kicking? Nobody get a pill?"

"I'm all right for one," returned Larry. "But we had better get out of this passage. I notice our friends the enemy are sending their cards through the door after us right anxious."

As he spoke a bullet tore a jagged splinter from a panel and buried itself in the ceiling. A second and a third followed.

"That's c'rect. We'd better be 'Not at home' when they call. Eh, Nell?"

Steve put an arm affectionately round the waist of the young woman who had come in such timely fashion to their aid and ran through the passage with her to the room beyond, Neill following with the prisoner.

"You're wounded, Steve," the young woman cried.

He shrugged. "Scratch in the hand. Got it when I arrested him. Had to shoot his trigger finger off."

"But I must see to it."

"Not now; wait till we're out of the woods." He turned to his friend: "Nell, let me introduce to you Mr. Neill, from the Panhandle. Mr. Neill, this is my sister. I don't know how come she to drop down behind us like an angel from heaven, but that's a story will wait. The thing we got to do right now is to light a shuck out of here."

His friend nodded, listening to the sound of blows battering the outer door. "They'll have it down in another minute. We've got to burn the wind seven ways for Sunday."

"What I'd like to know is whether there are two entrances to this rat-trap. Do you happen to know, Nell?" asked Fraser of his sister.

"Three," she answered promptly. "There's a back door into the court and a trap-door to the roof. That's the way I came."

"And it's the way we'll go. I might a-known you'd know all about it give you a quarter of a chance," her brother said admiringly. "We'll duck through the roof and let Mr. Dunke hold the sack. Lead the way, sis."

She guided them along another passageway and up some stairs to the second story. The trap-door that opened to the flat roof was above the bed about six feet. Neill caught the edges of the narrow opening, drew himself up, and wriggled through. Fraser lifted his sister by the waist high enough for Larry to catch her hands and draw her up.

"Hurry, Steve," she urged. "They've broken in. Hurry, dear."

The ranger unlocked his prisoner's handcuffs and tossed them up to the Tennessean.

"Get a move on you, Mr. Struve, unless you want to figure in a necktie party," he advised.

But the convict's flabby muscles were unequal to the task of getting him through the opening. Besides which, his wounded hand, tied up with a blood-soaked rag, impeded him. He had to be pulled from above and boosted from behind. Fraser, fit to handle his weight in wildcats, as an admirer had once put it, found no trouble in following. Steps were already heard on the stairs below when Larry slipped the cover to its place and put upon it a large flat stone which he found on the roof for that purpose. The fugitives crawled along the roof on their hands and knees so as to escape the observation of the howling mob outside the house. Presently they came into the shadows, and Nell rose, ran forward to a little ladder which led to a higher roof, and swiftly ascended. Neill, who was at her heels, could not fail to note the light supple grace with which she moved. He thought he had never seen a more charming woman in appearance. She still somehow retained the slim figure and taking ways of a girl, in conjunction with the soft rounded curves of a present-day Madonna.

Two more roofs were crossed before they came to another open trap-door. A lamp in the room below showed it to be a bedroom with two cots in it. Two children, one of them a baby, were asleep in these. A sweet-faced woman past middle age looked anxiously up with hands clasped together as in prayer.

"Is it you, Nellie?" she asked.

"Yes, mother, and Steve, and his friend. We're all right."

Fraser dropped through, and his sister let herself down into his arms. Struve followed, and was immediately handcuffed. Larry put back the trap and fastened it from within before he dropped down.

"We shall have to leave at once, mother, without waiting to dress the children," explained Fraser. "Wrap them in blankets and take some clothes along. I'll drop you at the hotel and slip my prisoner into the jail the back way if I can; that is, if another plan I have doesn't work."

The oldest child awoke and caught sight of Fraser. He reached out his hands in excitement and began to call: "Uncle Steve! Uncle Steve back again."

Fraser picked up the youngster. "Yes, Uncle Steve is back. But we're going to play a game that Indians are after us. Webb must be good and keep very, very still. He mustn't say a word till uncle tells him he may."

The little fellow clapped his hands. "Goody, goody! Shall we begin now?"

"Right this minute, son. Better take your money with you, mother. Is father here?"

"No, he is at the ranch. He went down in the stage to-day."

"All right, friends. We'll take the back way. Tennessee, will you look out for Mr. Struve? Sis will want to carry the baby."

They passed quietly down-stairs and out the back door. The starry night enveloped them coldly, and the moon looked down through rifted clouds. Nature was peaceful as her own silent hills, but the raucous jangle of cursing voices from a distance made discord of the harmony. They slipped along through the shadows, meeting none except occasional figures hurrying to the plaza. At the hotel door the two men separated from the rest of the party, and took with them their prisoner.

"I'm going to put him for safe-keeping down the shaft of a mine my father and I own," explained Steve. "He wouldn't be safe in the jail, because Dunke, for private reasons, has made up his mind to put out his lights."

"Private reasons?" echoed the engineer.

"Mighty good ones, too. Ain't that right?" demanded the ranger of Struve.

The convict cursed, though his teeth still chattered with fright from the narrow escape he had had, but through his prison jargon ran a hint of some power he had over the man Dunke. It was plain he thought the latter had incited the lynching in order to shut the convict's mouth forever.

"Where is this shaft?" asked Neill.

"Up a gulch about half a mile from here."

Fraser's eyes fixed themselves on a young man who passed on the run. He suddenly put his fingers to his lips and gave a low whistle. The running man stopped instantly, his head alert to catch the direction from which the sound had come. Steve whistled again and the stranger turned toward them.

"It's Brown, one of my rangers," explained the lieutenant.

Brown, it appeared, had just reached town and stabled his horse when word came to him that there was trouble on the plaza. He had been making for it when his officer's whistle stopped him.

"It's all over except getting this man to safety. I'm going to put him down an abandoned shaft of the Jackrabbit. He'll be safe there, and nobody will think to look for him in any such place," said Fraser.

The man from the Panhandle drew his friend to one side. "Do you need me any longer? I left Miss Kinney right on the edge of that mob, and I expect I better look around and see where she is now."

"All right. No, we don't need you. Take care you don't let any of these miners recognize you. They might make you trouble while they're still hot. Well, so-long. See you to-morrow at the hotel."

The Tennessean looked to his guns to make sure they hung loose in the scabbards, then stepped briskly back toward the plaza.