Chapter XXVIII. Help From the Hills
 

After they had stumbled on for about fifteen minutes Curly called a halt, and ordered the men to build a fire.

"This is as good a place as any," he told them. "No one will bother us here to-night, an' that's all we care."

Cursing and grumbling in a maudlin manner, several of the men gathered a number of sticks, and soon a fire was started. As the flames shot up Reynolds could see plainly the faces of his captors, and as he watched them his prospects did not seem very bright. They were men as reckless as Curly himself, and being half drunk they had lost all sense of responsibility. They did exactly what their leader commanded, notwithstanding their incessant complaints. This was exactly what Curly wanted. He had supplied them with liquor, but had taken little himself.

When the fire had been lighted, Reynolds was securely tied to a tree standing near. The rope which bound him was drawn tight and caused him considerable pain, although he exhibited no outward sign. But his heart was hot within him, especially when he looked upon Curly's sneering and jubilant face. If he could only be free for a few minutes he would attack the entire bunch, and revel in the fight. But to be bound and helpless was most galling.

"How d'ye like it?" Curly asked, coming up close to Reynolds. "Having a good time, eh? This is our picnic to-night."

"So I see," and the captive's lips curled in a sarcastic smile. "But just let me free for about five minutes, and then you'll see whose picnic it is."

"Not on yer life. We've got ye sure now, an' intend to keep ye that way until we're through with ye. What would yer little girlie say if she could see ye now?"

"To whom do you refer?"

"Oh, I guess you know, all right," and Curly grinned. "She's pretty, isn't she? But she has no use for me. She prefers a white-livered sucker like you."

"Who was the big white-livered sucker during the war?" Reynolds retorted. "I didn't hide away in the hills like you did, Curly. You are a coward, and you know it."

"Who killed his pardner, though?" Curly snarled, for the prisoner's words stung him to the quick.

"What do you mean?" Reynolds asked in surprise.

"Where is Frontier Samson? What happened to the old man?"

Reynolds' eyes grew big with amazement as the meaning of Curly's words dawned upon his mind. So these men believed that he had killed the prospector! His face turned pale at the thought. What could he say in self-defense? Curly noted his embarrassment as well as the change of countenance, and he was greatly elated.

"Ye can't deny it," he charged. "Look, boys," he shouted. "See the white streak about his gills."

"Where ish Samson?" a blear-eyed man demanded, thrusting his whiskey-reeking mouth up close to Reynolds' face. "Where ish my old friend?"

Reynolds made no reply, although it was with difficulty that he restrained himself. To try to explain to such men would be useless, he was well aware. Others now surrounded him, who asked, not only about Samson, but about Jim Weston's daughter. They made the night hideous with their oaths and vile questions, until they seemed to Reynolds more like imps of the infernal regions let loose than human beings. He saw that they were becoming more and more reckless as they talked, shouted, and quarrelled with one another, and he expected at any minute to see them turn upon him and inflict some bodily injury, and, perhaps, tear him to pieces.

All this pleased Curly immensely, as he stood a little aside and watched his followers. His eyes seldom left the captive's face, but he looked in vain for any show of weakness on Reynolds' part. This was not altogether to his liking. He wished to see his victim show signs of fear, to cry aloud and plead for mercy. He had done so himself, and he longed to find it in Reynolds that he might taunt him with weakness and cowardice.

When he had waited in vain for fully half an hour, he ordered the men to pile dry wood about the prisoner's feet. They readily obeyed, and all took part, anticipating some rare sport.

"We'll take that sneer off yer face," Curly remarked, as he stepped up close to Reynolds. "We'll make ye yell."

"The same as you did at Glen West, I suppose?" Reynolds retorted. "Your lungs must have been sore after such yelps. Who showed the white liver then?"

Curly spat contemptuously at the captive, and motioned the men to bring a burning stick from the fire. Several at once hastened to obey, tumbling over one another in their eagerness. One, more active than the rest, extricated himself, seized a flaming torch, and rushed toward the prisoner. He had almost reached him, and Reynolds felt that the moment of doom had arrived. But just at this critical instant a peculiar noise fell upon his ears, and he listened intently. Then his heart bounded with hope, for it was the sound of galloping horses. His captors heard it, too, and the man carrying the torch hesitated and then stopped. It was an ominous sound to them, and their hearts smote them with a great fear. But they had little time for thought, for at once nine hundred pounds of quivering horse flesh, bone, and sinewy muscle leaped out of the darkness into their midst, and reared wildly when suddenly checked by a pair of strong, tense arms. With head tossed high, and champing madly at his bits, Midnight reeled back almost upon his haunches in such a manner that an inexperienced rider would have been unhorsed in an instant. But Glen was not in the least perturbed by the rearing steed, and maintained her seat with an easy composure. In truth, she never thought about herself, but only of him whose life was in danger.

"Cowards!" she cried. "Unloose that man!" and she pointed to Reynolds.

But no one moved to obey her imperious command. The men stared as if she were an apparition, so sudden and unexpected was her arrival. And in fact, she did seem like a leader of the legendary Valkyries, with her flashing eyes and wind-swept hair, mounted upon that prancing horse as black as night itself. It was little wonder that the men trembled as they watched her, while several crossed themselves as if to ward off some malign influence.

Curly, who had staggered back aghast at this sudden intrusion, was the first to recover. He glanced apprehensively around, as if meditating flight. But Glen's keen eyes detected his design, and she sternly ordered him to remain where he was. Then she turned and spoke a few words to her followers in the Indian tongue. At once a rapid movement took place, as the natives formed themselves in a circle around the white men and thus barred every avenue of escape. This brought the miners somewhat to their senses, and seeing that their unwelcome visitors were not ghosts, their hands slipped to their hip-pockets. But a mighty roar from Sconda paralyzed their hands, causing them to drop by their sides as the baffled men stared sullenly upon almost a score of rifles pointing straight at their hearts.

It seemed to Reynolds as if he must be beholding a vision, so wonderful did it all appear. He gazed upon Glen with intense admiration. He could hardly believe it possible that such a sweet, confiding girl could be so changed into an imperious leader in such a short time. Could she be the same who had bade him such a tender farewell by the shore of the lake in the hills? She looked more beautiful than ever now, but it was the beauty of wild abandon in the glory of a noble cause, which for the time had transformed this tender maiden into a woman of unselfish daring. She held him spellbound as she sat so superbly upon her now quiet horse. Forgotten were his bonds as he watched her, and his one thought was of her. How had she heard of his trouble? and how had she managed to arrive just at the critical moment? He longed to hear the story from her own lips. A passionate desire swept upon him to enfold her in his arms, to tell her how proud he was of what she had done, and to press his lips to hers. And she was the girl who had been so grossly insulted by his villainous captors! The thought stung him, and he turned sharply toward the cringing Curly. The brute was standing there, sullen and defiant. Reynolds knew that he would soon be free, and then he would deal with the cur. He heard Glen speak and saw Sconda dismount and disarm the miners. Last of all he came to Curly, and when the Indian reached for his revolver, the serpent spat at him and cursed wildly. With a marvelous restraint, Sconda merely took the weapon from the enraged man's pocket, and then walking over to Reynolds, swiftly cut the cords which bound him to the tree and freed his hands.

Finding himself unbound, Reynolds cast one glance toward Glen, and saw her looking at him with a peculiar expression in her eyes. He seemed to read there a challenge, which could have but one meaning. He turned to Curly, and beholding that sneer of contempt still upon his face, he sprang forward and confronted the villain.

"I am free now," he cried, "and am able to answer your insult to the purest woman upon earth. It is man to man, and we shall settle it right here."

But Curly was in no mood for a fight; that was not his nature. He was a coward at heart, though the failure of his plot made him so angry that he was daringly reckless. With a curse he started to turn away, but Reynolds caught him by the shoulders and swung him roughly around.

"No, you don't get off so easily," he told him. "One of us must get a drubbing here to-night, and if you can give it to me, come on."

"Take that, then," and Curly drew off and hit him a savage blow on the face.

It was all that Reynolds needed, and springing forward, he felled his antagonist to the ground with a single blow. And there Curly lay, and made no attempt to rise. He had enough, and he knew in his heart that he was no match for the man standing over him.

"Get up," Reynolds ordered. "I'm not through with you yet."

But Curly did not move. He lay there as if dead. Reynolds did not know what to do, for he was unwilling to inflict further punishment upon the creature while he was down.

"Curly." It was Glen's voice, and it had an ominous note. "Get up at once, and explain the meaning of this night's affair. Why this insult to Mr. Reynolds?"

To this command, however, Curly paid no heed, but remained as he had fallen. Glen's eyes flashed with a dangerous light as she tapped impatiently with her riding-whip upon the pommel of her saddle.

"Get up," she again ordered, "or I shall hand you over to the Indians. They will not be so considerate of you as we are."

As Curly still made no effort to rise, Glen uttered just two Indian words to Sconda. The latter immediately turned and roared a command to his followers. At once half a dozen natives sprang eagerly forward, but before they could lay hands upon him Curly was on his feet, trembling violently. He leaped aside from the natives, his face ghastly pale.

"Keep them off!" he yelled. "Don't let the devils touch me!"

"I thought that would bring you somewhat to your senses," and a smile of contempt hovered about the corners of Glen's mouth as she spoke. "But I mean what I say, you can be assured of that. Tell me, now, what is the meaning of all this? Why did you bring Mr. Reynolds here, and what were you going to do to him?"

"He murdered his pardner," was the low reply.

Glen gave a violent start at this accusation, and looked keenly at Curly. Her hands trembled, and it seemed to her as if her heart had stopped beating.

"Who was his partner?" she at length found voice to ask.

"Frontier Samson, of course. He was a friend of ours, and we were about to avenge his death, when you interfered."

"But how did you learn that Frontier Samson is dead?" Glen inquired.

"Because no one has seen him since he left camp with this guy," and he motioned to Reynolds who was standing nearby. "Samson hasn't shown up at Big Draw, an' his pardner doesn't care to explain what happened to him."

For a few seconds there was a dead silence, save for the crackling of the fire, and the restless movements of the horses. Then from out of the darkness came a roar of laughter, and while all turned and stared in astonishment, Frontier Samson himself bounded into their midst and confronted Curly.

"Do I look like a dead man?" he demanded. "D'ye think I've been murdered by me pardner?"

Curly's only reply was a fearful stare as if he had seen a ghost. He tried to speak, but words would not come.

"Frightened, are ye?" and the prospector took a step closer to the unhappy villain. "But ye'll be more frightened before I git through with ye, let me tell ye that. What's the meanin' of sich actions? Out with it."

"I t-thought y-you were dead," Curly stammered.

"An' so ye was takin' the matter of justice into yer own dirty hands, eh?"

"Somebody had to do it."

"H'm," Samson grunted as he glanced around upon the miners. "Queer justice, I call it. Why didn't ye let the Police look after the affair, if ye thought me pardner had murdered me? No, ye can't answer that," he continued, for Curly made no defence. "It's yer own bad heart, that's what made ye do it. Yer jealous; that's what's wrong. An' as fer justice, you'll git plenty of it soon, an' more'n ye'll care fer. An' you talk about a man murderin' his pardner, an' givin' him justice! Who murdered Bill Ducett, at Black Ravine, tell me that?"

Curly's eyes, which were big with fear, now fairly burst from their sockets as the old prospector laid this startling charge. His knees trembled, and it seemed as if he must fall to the ground, so great was his terror.

"H-how d'ye know about Bill?" he gasped.

"Never mind how I know," Samson replied. Then he turned toward Glen. "Excuse me, Miss," and he lifted his old weather-beaten hat, "I'm real sorry that you have to witness sich a scene as this. But it can't be helped, fer thar stands the worst criminal that ever came into this region. An' to think of him talkin' about murder an' justice, when he himself murdered his own pardner!"

"It's a lie!" Curly denied with an oath. "What d'ye mean by making such a charge?"

"It's no lie, Curly," and the prospector looked sternly into the cur's bloodshot eyes. "I've got all the proof that's necessary to stretch yer neck. But it'll keep until the right ones git hold of ye. In the meantime, we might as well go down to Shorty's an' git something to eat. I'm as hungry as a two-year-old bear. We'll take these fellers along," and he motioned to the miners. "Jist let yer Injuns look after 'em, Miss. An' ye'd better see that Curly is tied tight so's he can't git away. We don't want to run any risk with him."

It took but a few minutes to carry out this latter suggestion, and then all headed for the mining creek. The miners were marshalled by the Indians, with Samson walking watchfully by Curly's side, while Reynolds kept close to Glen. No one spoke, and it was a strange procession which wound its way down the creek, and at length halted in front of the roadhouse.