A texas ranger, p.4
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       A Texas Ranger, p.4

           William MacLeod Raine
 

  CHAPTER IV -- LOST!

  After her precipitate leave-taking of the man whose team she had boughtor borrowed, Margaret Kinney nursed the fires of her indignation insilence, banking them for future use against the time when she shouldmeet him again in the event that should ever happen. She brought herwhip-lash snapping above the backs of the horses, and there was that inthe supple motion of the small strong wrist which suggested that nothingwould have pleased her more than having this audacious Texan there inplace of the innocent animals. For whatever of inherited savagery laylatent in her blood had been flogged to the surface by the circumstancesinto which she had been thrust. Never in all her placid life had sheknown the tug of passion any closer than from across the footlights of atheatre.

  She had had, to be sure, one stinging shame, but it had been buried infar-away Arizona, quite beyond the ken of the convention-bound peopleof the little Wisconsin town where she dwelt. But within the past twelvehours Fate had taken hold of her with both hands and thrust her intoLife. She sensed for the first time its roughness, its nakedness, itstragedy. She had known the sensations of a hunted wild beast, the flushof shame for her kinship to this coarse ruffian by her side, and theshock of outraged maiden modesty at kisses ravished from her by force.The teacher hardly knew herself for the same young woman who butyesterday was engrossed in multiplication tables and third readers.

  A sinister laugh from the man beside her brought the girl back to thepresent.

  She looked at him and then looked quickly away again. There wassomething absolutely repulsive in the creature--in the big ears thatstood out from the close-cropped head, in the fishy eyes that saweverything without ever looking directly at anything, in the crookedmouth with its irregular rows of stained teeth from which several weremissing. She had often wondered about her brother, but never at theworst had she imagined anything so bad as this. The memory would beenough to give one the shudders for years.

  "Guess I ain't next to all that happened there in the mesquite," hesneered, with a lift of the ugly lip.

  She did not look at him. She did not speak. There seethed in her aloathing and a disgust beyond expression.

  "Guess you forgot that a fellow can sometimes hear even when he can'tsee. Since I'm chaperooning you I'll make out to be there next time youmeet a good-looking lady-killer. Funny, the difference it makes, beingyour brother. You ain't seen me since you was a kid, but you plumbforgot to kiss me."

  There was a note in his voice she had not heard before, some hint ofleering ribaldry in the thick laugh that for the first time stirredunease in her heart. She did not know that the desperate, wild-animalfear in him, so overpowering that everything else had been pushed to thebackground, had obscured certain phases of him that made her presencehere such a danger as she could not yet conceive. That fear was nowlifting, and the peril loomed imminent.

  He put his arm along the back of the seat and grinned at her from hisloose-lipped mouth.

  "But o' course it ain't too late to begin now, my dearie."

  Her fearless level eyes met squarely his shifty ones and read theresomething she could dread without understanding, something that was anundefined sacrilege of her sweet purity. For woman-like her instinctleaped beyond reason.

  "Take down your arm," she ordered.

  "Oh, I don't know, sis. I reckon your brother--"

  "You're no brother of mine," she broke in. "At most it is an accident ofbirth I disown. I'll have no relationship with you of any sort."

  "Is that why you're driving with me to Mexico?" he jeered.

  "I made a mistake in trying to save you. If it were to do over again Ishould not lift a hand."

  "You wouldn't, eh?"

  There was something almost wolfish in the facial malignity thatdistorted him.

  "Not a finger."

  "Perhaps you'd give me up now if you had a chance?"

  "I would if I did what was right."

  "And you'd sure want to do what was right," he snarled.

  "Take down your arm," she ordered again, a dangerous glitter in hereyes.

  He thrust his evil face close to hers and showed his teeth in a blindrage that forgot everything else.

  "Listen here, you little locoed baby. I got something to tell youthat'll make your hair curl. You're right, I ain't your brother. I'mNick Struve--Wolf Struve if you like that better. I lied you intobelieving me your brother, who ain't ever been anything but a skim-milkquitter. He's dead back there in the cactus somewhere, and I killedhim!"

  Terror flooded her eyes. Her very breathing hung suspended. She gazed athim in a frozen fascination of horror.

  "Killed him because he gave me away seven years ago and was gittin'ready to round on me again. Folks don't live long that play Wolf Struvefor a lamb. A wolf! That's what I am, a born wolf, and don't you forgetit."

  The fact itself did not need his words for emphasis. He fairly reekedthe beast of prey. She had to nerve herself against faintness. She mustnot swoon. She dared not.

  "Think you can threaten to give me up, do you? 'Fore I'm through withyou you'll wish you had never been born. You'll crawl on your knees andbeg me to kill you."

  Such a devil of wickedness she had never seen in human eyes before. Theruthlessness left no room for appeal. Unless the courage to tame him layin her she was lost utterly.

  He continued his exultant bragging, blatantly, ferociously.

  "I didn't tell you about my escape; how a guard tried to stop me and Iput the son of a gun out of business. There's a price on my head. D'yethink I'm the man to give you a chance to squeal on me? D'ye think I'lllet a pink-and-white chit send me back to be strangled?" he screamed.

  The stark courage in her rose to the crisis. Not an hour before she hadseen the Texan cow him. He was of the kind would take the whipwhiningly could she but wield it. Her scornful eyes fastened on himcontemptuously, chiseled into the cur heart of him.

  "What will you do?" she demanded, fronting the issue that must sooner orlater rise.

  The raucous jangle of his laugh failed to disturb the steadiness ofher gaze. To reassure himself of his mastery he began to bluster, tothreaten, turning loose such a storm of vile abuse as she had neverheard. He was plainly working his nerve up to the necessary pitch.

  In her first terror she had dropped the reins. Her hands had slippedunconsciously under the lap-robe. Now one of them touched somethingchilly on the seat beside her. She almost gasped her relief. It was theselfsame revolver with which she had tried to hold up the Texan.

  In the midst of Struve's flood of invective the girl's hand leapedquickly from the lap-robe. A cold muzzle pressed against his cheekbrought the convict's outburst to an abrupt close.

  "If you move I'll fire," she said quietly.

  For a long moment their gazes gripped, the deadly clear eyes of theyoung woman and the furtive ones of the miscreant. Underneath the robeshe felt a stealthy movement, and cried out quickly: "Hands up!"

  With a curse he threw his arms into the air.

  "Jump out! Don't lower your hands!"

  "My ankle," he whined.

  "Jump!"

  His leap cleared the wheel and threw him to the ground. She caught upthe whip and slashed wildly at the horses. They sprang forward in apanic, flying wildly across the open plain. Margaret heard a revolverbark twice. After that she was so busy trying to regain control of theteam that she could think of nothing else. The horses were young andfull of spirit, so that she had all she could do to keep the trap frombeing upset. It wound in and out among the hills, taking perilous placessafely to her surprise, and was at last brought to a stop only by thenarrowing of a draw into which the animals had bolted.

  They were quiet now beyond any chance of farther runaway, even had itbeen possible. Margaret dropped the lines on the dashboard and beganto sob, at first in slow deep breaths and then in quicker uneven ones.Plucky as she was, the girl had had about all her nerves could stand forone day. The strain of her preparation for flight, the long nightdrive, and the excitement of t
he last two hours were telling on her in ahysterical reaction.

  She wept herself out, dried her eyes with dabs of her little kerchief,and came back to a calm consideration of her situation. She must getback to Fort Lincoln as soon as possible, and she must do it withoutencountering the convict. For in the course of the runaway the revolverhad been jolted from the trap.

  Not quite sure in which direction lay the road, she got out from thetrap, topped the hill to her right, and looked around. She saw in alldirections nothing but rolling hilltops, merging into each other evento the horizon's edge. In her wild flight among these hills she had lostcount of direction. She had not yet learned how to know north from southby the sun, and if she had it would have helped but little since sheknew only vaguely the general line of their travel.

  She felt sure that from the top of the next rise she could locate theroad, but once there she was as uncertain as before. Before giving upshe breasted a third hill to the summit. Still no signs of the road.Reluctantly she retraced her steps, and at the foot of the hill wasuncertain whether she should turn to right or left. Choosing the left,from the next height she could see nothing of the team. She was not yetalarmed. It was ridiculous to suppose that she was lost. How could shebe when she was within three or four hundred yards of the rig? She wouldcut across the shoulder into the wash and climb the hillock beyond. Forbehind it the team must certainly be.

  But at her journey's end her eyes were gladdened by no sight of thehorses. Every draw was like its neighbor, every rolling rise a replicaof the next. The truth came home to a sinking heart. She was lost in oneof the great deserts of Texas. She would wander for days as others had,and she would die in the end of starvation and thirst. Nobody would knowwhere to look for her, since she had told none where she was going. Onlyyesterday at her boarding-house she had heard a young man tell how atenderfoot had been found dead after he had wandered round and round inintersecting circles. She sank down and gave herself up to despair.

  But not for long. She was too full of grit to give up without a longfight. How many hours she wandered Margaret Kinney did not know. The sunwas high in the heavens when she began. It had given place to floodingmoonlight long before her worn feet and aching heart gave up the searchfor some human landmark. Once at least she must have slept, for shestared up from a spot where she had sunk down to look up into a starrysky that was new to her.

  The moon had sailed across the vault and grown chill and faint with dawnbefore she gave up, completely exhausted, and when her eyes opened againit was upon a young day fresh and sweet. She knew by this time hungerand an acute thirst. As the day increased, this last she knew must be atorment of swollen tongue and lime-kiln throat. Yesterday she had criedfor help till her voice had failed. A dumb despair had now driven awayher terror.

  And then into the awful silence leaped a sound like a messenger of hope.It was a shot, so close that she could see the smoke rise from an arroyonear. She ran forward till she could look down into it and caught sightof a man with a dead bird in his hand. He had his back toward her andwas stooping over a fire. Slithering down over the short dry grass, shewas upon him almost before she could stop.

  "I've been lost all night and all yesterday," she sobbed.

  He snatched at the revolver lying beside him and whirled like a flashas if to meet an attack. The girl's pumping heart seemed to stand still.The man snarling at her was the convict Struve.

 
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