Part I. The Man from the Panhandle
Chapter VIII. Would You Worry About Me?
 

Margaret Kinney's heart ceased beating in that breathless instant after the two dauntless friends had flung defiance to two hundred. There was a sudden tightening of her throat, a fixing of dilated eyes on what would have been a thrilling spectacle had it not meant so much more to her. For as she leaned forward in the saddle with parted lips she knew a passionate surge of fear for one of the apparently doomed men that went through her like swift poison, that left her dizzy with the shock of it.

The thought of action came to her too late. As Dunke stepped back to give the signal for attack she cried out his name, but her voice was drowned in the yell of rage that filled the street. She tried to spur her horse into the crowd, to force a way to the men standing with such splendid fearlessness above this thirsty pack of wolves. But the denseness of the throng held her fixed even while revolvers flashed.

And then the miracle happened. She saw the door open and limned in a penumbra of darkness the white comely face of a woman. She saw the beleaguered men sway back and the door close in the faces of the horde. She saw bullets go crashing into the door, heard screams of baffled fury, and presently the crash of axes into the panels of the barrier that held them back. It seemed to fade away before her gaze, and instead of it she saw a doorway full of furious crowding miners.

Then presently her heart stood still again. From her higher place in the saddle, well back in the outskirts of the throng, in the dim light she made out a figure crouching on the roof; then another, and another, and a fourth. She suffered an agony of fear in the few heart-beats before they began to slip away. Her eyes swept the faces near her. One and all they were turned upon the struggling mass of humanity at the entrance to the passage. When she dared look again to the roof the fugitives were gone. She thought she perceived them swarming up a ladder to the higher roof, but in the surrounding grayness she could not be sure of this.

The stamping of feet inside the house continued. Once there was the sound of an exploding revolver. After a long time a heavy figure struggled into view through the roof-trap. It was Dunke himself. He caught sight of the ladder, gave a shout of triumph, and was off in pursuit of his flying prey. As others appeared on the roof they, too, took up the chase, a long line of indistinct running figures.

There were other women on the street now, most of them Mexicans, so that Margaret attracted little attention. She moved up opposite the house that had become the scene of action, expecting every moment to hear the shots that would determine the fate of the victims.

But no shots came. Lights flashed from room to room, and presently one light began to fill a room so brilliantly that she knew a lamp must have been overturned and set the house on fire. Dunke burst from the front door, scarce a dozen paces from her. There was a kind of lurid fury in his eyes. He was as ravenously fierce as a wolf balked of its kill. She chose that moment to call him.

"Mr. Dunke!"

Her voice struck him into a sort of listening alertness, and again she pronounced his name.

"You, Miss Kinney-- here?" he asked in amazement.

"Yes-- Miss Kinney."

"But-- What are you doing here? I thought you were at Fort Lincoln."

"I was, but I'm here now."

"Why? This is no place for you to-night. Hell's broke loose."

"So it seems," she answered, with shining eyes.

"There's trouble afoot, Miss Margaret. No girl should be out, let alone an unprotected one."

"I did not come here unprotected. There was a man with me. The one, Mr. Dunke, that you are now looking for to murder!"

She gave it to him straight from the shoulder, her eyes holding his steadily.

"Struve?" he gasped, taken completely aback.

"No, not Struve. The man who stood beside Lieutenant Fraser, the one you threatened to kill because he backed the law."

"I guess you don't know all the facts, Miss Kinney." He came close and met her gaze while he spoke in a low voice. "There ain't many know what I know. Mebbe there ain't any beside you now. But I know you're Jim Kinney's sister."

"You are welcome to the knowledge. It is no secret. Lieutenant Fraser knows it. So does his friend. I'm not trying to hide it. What of it?"

Her quiet scorn drew the blood to his face.

"That's all right. If you do want to keep it quiet I'm with you. But there's something more. Your brother escaped from Yuma with this fellow Struve. Word came over the wire an hour or two ago that Struve had been captured and that it was certain he had killed his pal, your brother. That's why I mean to see him hanged before mo'ning."

"He did kill my brother. He told me so himself." Her voice carried a sob for an instant, but she went on resolutely. "What has that to do with it? Isn't there any law in Texas? Hasn't he been captured? And isn't he being taken back to his punishment?"

"He told you so himself!" the man echoed. "When did he tell you? When did you see him?"

"I was alone with him for twelve hours in the desert."

"Alone with you?" His puzzled face showed how he was trying to take this in, "I don't understand. How could he be alone with you?"

"I thought he was my brother and I was helping him to escape from Fort Lincoln."

"Helping him to escape! Helping Wolf Struve to escape! Well, I'm darned if that don't beat my time. How come you to think him your brother?" the man asked suspiciously.

"It doesn't matter how or why. I thought so. That's enough."

"And you were alone with him-- why, you must have been alone with him all night," cried Dunke, coming to a fresh discovery.

"I was," she admitted very quietly.

A new suspicion edged itself into his mind. "What did you talk about? Did he say anything about-- Did he-- He always was a terrible liar. Nobody ever believed Wolf Struve."

Without understanding the reason for it, she could see that he was uneasy, that he was trying to discount the value of anything the convict might have told her. Yet what could Struve the convict, No. 9,432, have to do with the millionaire mine-owner, Thomas J. Dunke? What could there be in common between them? Why should the latter fear what the other had to tell? The thing was preposterous on the face of it, but the girl knew by some woman's instinct that she was on the edge of a secret Dunke held hidden deep in his heart from all the world. Only this much she guessed; that Struve was a sharer of his secret, and therefore he was set on lynching the man before he had time to tell it.

"They got away, didn't they?" she asked.

"They got away-- for the present," he answered grimly. "But we're still hunting them."

"Can't you let the law take its course, Mr. Danke? Is it necessary to do this terrible thing?"

"Don't you worry any about it, Miss Kinney. This ain't a woman's job. I'll attend to it."

"But my friends," she reminded him.

"We ain't intending to hurt them any. Come, I'll see you home. You staying at the hotel?"

"I don't know. I haven't made any arrangements yet."

"Well, we'll go make them now."

But she did not move. "I'm not going in till I know how this comes out."

He was a man used to having his own brutal way, one strong by nature, with strength increased by the money upon which he rode rough-shod to success.

He laughed as he caught hold of the rein. "That's ridiculous!"

"But my business, I think," the girl answered sharply, jerking the bridle from his fingers.

Dunke stared at her. It was his night of surprises. He failed to recognize the conventional teacher he knew in this bright-eyed, full-throated young woman who fronted him so sure of herself. She seemed to him to swim brilliantly in a tide of flushed beauty, in spite of the dust and the stains of travel. She was in a shapeless khaki riding-suit and a plain, gray, broad-brimmed Stetson. But the one could not hide the flexible curves that made so frankly for grace, nor the other the coppery tendrils that escaped in fascinating disorder from under its brim.

"You hadn't ought to be out here. It ain't right."

"I don't remember asking you to act as a standard of right and wrong for me."

He laughed awkwardly. "We ain't quarreling, are we, Miss Margaret?"

"Certainly I am not. I don't quarrel with anybody but my friends."

"Well, I didn't aim to offend you anyway. You know me better than that." He let his voice fall into a caressing modulation and put a propitiatory hand on her skirt, but under the uncompromising hardness of her gaze the hand fell away to his side. "I'm your friend-- leastways I want to be."

"My friends don't lynch men."

"But after what he did to your brother."

"The law will take care of that. If you want to please me call off your men before it is too late."

It was his cue to please her, for so far as it was in him the man loved her. He had set his strong will to trample on his past, to rise to a place where no man could shake his security with proof of his former misdeeds. He meant to marry her and to place her out of reach of those evil days of his. Only Struve was left of the old gang, and he knew the Wolf well enough to be sure that the fellow would delight in blackmailing him. The convict's mouth must be closed. But just now he must promise t she wanted, and he did.

The promise was still on his lips when a third person strode into their conversation.

"Sorry I had to leave you so hastily, Miss Kinney. I'm ready to take you to the hotel now if it suits you."

Both of them turned quickly, to see the man from the Panhandle sauntering forth from the darkness. There was a slight smile on his face, which did not abate when he nodded to Dunke amiably.

"You?" exclaimed the mine-owner angrily.

"Why, yes-- me. Hope we didn't inconvenience you, seh, by postponing the coyote's journey to Kingdom Come. My friend had to take a hand because he is a ranger, and I sat in to oblige him. No hard feelings, I hope."

"Did you-- Are you all safe?" Margaret asked.

"Yes, ma'am. Got away slick and clean."

"Where?" barked Dunke.

"Where what, my friend?"

"Where did you take him?"

Larry laughed in slow deep enjoyment. "I hate to disappoint you, but if I told that would be telling. No, I reckon I won't table my cards yet a while. If you're playing in this game of Hi-Spy go to it and hunt."

"Perhaps you don't know that I am T. J. Dunke."

"You don't say! And I'm General Grant. This lady hyer is Florence Nightingale or Martha Washington, I disremember which."

Miss Kinney laughed. "Whichever she is she's very very tired," she said. "I think I'll accept your offer to see me to the hotel, Mr. Neill."

She nodded a careless good night to the mine-owner, and touched the horse with her heel. At the porch of the rather primitive hotel she descended stiffly from the saddle.

Before she left the Southerner-- or the Westerner, for sometimes she classified him as one, sometimes as the other-- she asked him one hesitant question.

"Were you thinking of going out again tonight?"

"I did think of taking a turn out to see if I could find Fraser. Anything I can do for you?"

"Yes. Please don't go. I don't want to have to worry about you. I have had enough trouble for the present."

"Would you worry about me?" he asked quietly, his eyes steadily on her.

"I lie awake about the most unaccountable things sometimes."

He smiled in his slow Southern fashion. "Very well. I'll stay indoors. I reckon Steve ain't lost, anyhow. You're too tired to have to lie awake about me to-night. There's going to be lots of other nights for you to think of me."

She glanced at him with a quick curiosity. "Well, of all the conceit I ever heard!"

"I'm the limit, ain't I?" he grinned as he took himself off.