A texas ranger, p.5
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       A Texas Ranger, p.5

           William MacLeod Raine
 

  CHAPTER V -- LARRY NEILL TO THE RESCUE

  The snarl gave way slowly to a grim more malign than his open hostility.

  "So you've been lost! And now you're found--come safe back to yourloving brother. Ain't that luck for you? Hunted all over Texas till youfound him, eh? And it's a powerful big State, too."

  She caught sight of something that made her forget all else.

  "Have you got water in that canteen?" she asked, her parched eyesstaring at it.

  "Yes, dearie."

  "Give it me."

  He squatted tailor-fashion on the ground, put the canteen between hisknees, and shoved his teeth in a crooked grin.

  "Thirsty?"

  "I'm dying for a drink."

  "You look like a right lively corpse."

  "Give it to me."

  "Will you take it now or wait till you get it?"

  "My throat's baked. I want water," she said hoarsely.

  "Most folks want a lot they never get."

  She walked toward him with her hand outstretched.

  "I tell you I've got to have it."

  He laughed evilly. "Water's at a premium right now. Likely there ain'tenough here to get us both out of this infernal hole alive. Yes, it'ssure at a premium."

  He let his eye drift insolently over her and take stock of his prey, inthe same feline way of a cat with a mouse, gloating over her distressand the details of her young good looks. His tainted gaze got the faintpure touch of color in her face, the reddish tinge of her wavy brownhair, the desirable sweetness of her rounded maidenhood. If her stepdragged, if dusky hollows shadowed her lids, if the native courage hadbeen washed from the hopeless eyes, there was no spring of manlinesshid deep within him that rose to refresh her exhaustion. No pity orcompunction stirred at her sweet helplessness.

  "Do you want my money?" she asked wearily.

  "I'll take that to begin with."

  She tossed him her purse. "There should be seventy dollars there. May Ihave a drink now?"

  "Not yet, my dear. First you got to come up to me and put your armsround--"

  He broke off with a curse, for she was flying toward the little circleof cottonwoods some forty yards away. She had caught a glimpse of thewater-hole and was speeding for it.

  "Come back here," he called, and in a rage let fly a bullet after her.

  She paid no heed, did not stop till she reached the spring and threwherself down full length to drink, to lave her burnt face, to drinkagain of the alkali brackish water that trickled down her throat likenectar incomparably delicious.

  She was just rising to her feet when Struve hobbled up.

  "Don't you think you can play with me, missie. When I give the word youstop in your tracks, and when I say 'Jump!' step lively."

  She did not answer. Her head was lifted in a listening attitude, as ifto catch some sound that came faintly to her from a distance.

  "You're mine, my beauty, to do with as I please, and don't you forgetit."

  She did not hear him. Her ears were attuned to voices floating to heracross the desert. Of course she was beginning to wander in her mind.She knew that. There could be no other human beings in this sea ofloneliness. They were alone; just they two, the degenerate ruffian andhis victim. Still, it was strange. She certainly had imagined the murmurof people talking. It must be the beginning of delirium.

  "Do you hear me?" screamed Struve, striking her on the cheek with hisfist. "I'm your master and you're my squaw."

  She did not cringe as he had expected, nor did she show fight. Indeedthe knowledge of the blow seemed scarcely to have penetrated her mentalpenumbra. She still had that strange waiting aspect, but her eyes werebeginning to light with new-born hope. Something in her manner shook theman's confidence; a dawning fear swept away his bluster. He, too, wasnow listening intently.

  Again the low murmur, beyond a possibility of doubt. Both of them caughtit. The girl opened her throat in a loud cry for help. An answeringshout came back clear and strong. Struve wheeled and started up thearroyo, bending in and out among the cactus till he disappeared over thebrow.

  Two horsemen burst into sight, galloping down the steep trail atbreakneck speed, flinging down a small avalanche of shale with them. Oneof them caught sight of the girl, drew up so short that his horse slidto its haunches, and leaped from the saddle in a cloud of dust.

  He ran toward her, and she to him, hands out to meet her rescuer.

  "Why didn't you come sooner? I've waited so long," she criedpathetically, as his arms went about her.

  "You poor lamb! Thank God we're in time!" was all he could say.

  Then for the first time in her life she fainted.

  The other rider lounged forward, a hat in his hand that he had justpicked up close to the fire.

  "We seem to have stampeded part of this camping party. I'll just takea run up this hill and see if I can't find the missing section andpersuade it to stay a while. I don't reckon you need me hyer, do you?"he grinned, with a glance at Neill and his burden.

  "All right. You'll find me here when you get back, Fraser," the otheranswered.

  Larry carried the girl to the water-hole and set her down beside it.He sprinkled her face with water, and presently her lids trembled andfluttered open. She lay there with her head on his arm and looked at himquite without surprise.

  "How did you find me?"

  "Mainly luck. We followed your trail to where we found the rig. Afterthat it was guessing where the needle was in the haystack It justhappened we were cutting across country to water when we heard a shot."

  "That must have been when he fired at me," she said.

  "My God! Did he shoot at you?"

  "Yes. Where is he now?" She shuddered.

  "Cutting over the hills with Steve after him."

  "Steve?"

  "My friend, Lieutenant Fraser. He is an officer in the ranger force."

  "Oh!" She relapsed into a momentary silence before she said: "He isn'tmy brother at all. He is a murderer." She gave a sudden little moan ofpain as memory pierced her of what he had said. "He bragged to me thathe had killed my brother. He meant to kill me, I think."

  "Sho! It doesn't matter what the coyote meant. It's all over now. You'rewith friends."

  A warm smile lit his steel-blue eyes, softened the lines of his lean,hard face. Never had shipwrecked mariner come to safer harbor than she.She knew that this slim, sun-bronzed Westerner was a man's man, thatstrength and nerve inhabited his sinewy frame. He would fight for herbecause she was a woman as long as he could stand and see.

  A touch of color washed back into her cheeks, a glow of courage into herheart. "Yes, it's all over. The weary, weary hours--and the fear--andthe pain--and the dreadful thirst--and worst of all, him!"

  She began to cry softly, hiding her face in his coat-sleeve.

  "I'm crying because--it's all over. I'm a little fool, just as--as yousaid I was."

  "I didn't know you then," he smiled. "I'm right likely to make snap-shotjudgments that are 'way off."

  "You knew me well enough to--" She broke off in the middle, bathed ina flush of remembrance that brought her coppery head up from his arminstantly.

  "Be careful. You're dizzy yet."

  "I'm all right now, thank you," she answered, her embarrassed profilehaughtily in the air. "But I'm ravenous for something to eat. It's beentwenty-four hours since I've had a bite. That's why I'm weepy andfaint. I should think you might make a snap-shot judgment that breakfastwouldn't hurt me."

  He jumped up contritely. "That's right. What a goat I am!"

  His long, clean stride carried him over the distance that separated himfrom his bronco. Out of the saddle-bags he drew some sandwiches wrappedin a newspaper.

  "Here, Miss Margaret! You begin on these. I'll have coffee ready in twoshakes of a cow's tail. And what do you say to bacon?"

  He understood her to remark from the depths of a sandwich that she said"Amen!" to it, and that she would take everything he had and as soon ashe could get it ready.
She was as good as her word. He found no causeto complain of her appetite. Bacon and sandwiches and coffee were allconsumed in quantities reasonable for a famished girl who had beentramping actively for a day and a night, and, since she was a childof impulse, she turned more friendly eyes on him who had appeased herappetite.

  "I suppose you are a cowboy like everybody else in this country?" sheventured amiably after her hunger had become less sharp.

  "No, I belong to the government reclamation service."

  "Oh!" She had a vague idea she had heard of it before. "Who is it youreclaim? Indians, I suppose."

  "We reclaim young ladies when we find them wandering about the desert,"he smiled.

  "Is that what the government pays you for?"

  "Not entirely. Part of the time I examine irrigation projects and reporton their feasibility. I have been known to build dams and bore tunnels."

  "And what of the young ladies you reclaim? Do you bore them?" she askedsaucily.

  "I understand they have hitherto always found me very entertaining," heclaimed boldly, his smiling eyes on her.

  "Indeed!"

  "But young ladies are peculiar. Sometimes we think we're entertainingthem when we ain't."

  "I'm sure you are right."

  "And other times they're interested when they pretend they're not."

  "It must be comforting to your vanity to think that," she said coldly.For his words had recalled similar ones spoken by him twenty-four hoursearlier, which in turn had recalled his unpardonable sin.

  The lieutenant of rangers appeared over the hill and descended into thedraw. Miss Kinney went to meet him.

  "He got away?" she asked.

  "Yes, ma'am. I lost him in some of these hollows, or rather I neverfound him. I'm going to take my hawss and swing round in a circle."

  "What are you going to do with me?" she smiled.

  "I been thinking that the best thing would be for you to go to the MalPais mines with Mr. Neill."

  "Who is Mr. Neill?"

  "The gentleman over there by the fire."

  "Must I go with him? I should feel safer in your company, lieutenant."

  "You'll be safe enough in his, Miss Kinney."

  "You know me then?" she asked.

  "I've seen you at Fort Lincoln. You were pointed out to me once as a newteacher."

  "But I don't want to go to the Mal Pais mines. I want to go to FortLincoln. As to this gentleman, I have no claims on him and shall nottrouble him to burden himself with me."

  Steve laughed. "I don't reckon he would think, it a terrible burden,ma'am. And about the Mal Pais--this is how it is. Fort Lincoln is all ofsixty miles from here as the crow flies. The mines are about seventeen.My notion was you could get there and take the stage to-morrow to yourtown."

  "What shall I do for a horse?"

  "I expect Mr. Neill will let you ride his. He can walk beside thehawss."

  "That won't do at all. Why should I put him to that inconvenience? I'llwalk myself."

  The ranger flashed his friendly smile at her. He had an instinct thatserved him with women. "Any way that suits you and him suits me. I'mright sorry that I've got to leave you and take out after that houndStruve, but you may take my word for it that this gentleman will lookafter you all right and bring you safe to the Mal Pais."

  "He is a stranger to me. I've only met him once and on that occasion notpleasantly. I don't like to put myself under an obligation to him. Butof course if I must I must."

  "That's the right sensible way to look at it. In this little old worldwe got to do a heap we don't want to do. For instance, I'd rather seeyou to the Mal Pais than hike over the hills after this fellow," heconcluded gallantly.

  Neill, who had been packing the coffee-pot and the frying-pan, nowsauntered forward with his horse.

  "Well, what's the program?" he wanted to know.

  "It's you and Miss Kinney for the Mal Pais, me for the trail. I ain'tvery likely to find Mr. Struve, but you can't always sometimes tell.Anyhow, I'm going to take a shot at it," the ranger answered.

  "And at him?" his friend suggested.

  "Oh, I reckon not. He may be a sure-enough wolf, but I expect this ain'this day to howl."

  Steve whistled to his pony, swung to the saddle when it trotted up, andwaved his hat in farewell.

  His "Adios!" drifted back to them from the crown of the hill just beforehe disappeared over its edge.

 
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