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The fierce crackling of the flames rolled toward them. The wind served at least the one purpose of lifting the smoke so that it did not stifle those on the river-bank. Clanton crept up from the cave and joined them.
"Looks like we're goin' out with fireworks, Billie," he grinned.
"That's nonsense," said Lee sharply. "There's a way of escape, if only we can find it."
"Blamed if I see it," the young fellow answered. As he looked at her the eyes in his pale face glowed. "But I see one thing. You're the best little pilgrim that ever I met up with."
The heat of the flames came to them in waves.
"You walk out, climb on yore horse, an' ride down the river, Miss Lee. Then we'll make a break for cover. You can't do anything more for us," insisted Prince.
"That's right," agreed the younger man. "We'll play this out alone. You cut yore stick an' drift. If we git through I'll sure come back an' thank you proper some day."
Recently Lee had read "The Three Musketeers." From it there flashed to her a memory of the picture on the cover.
"I know what we'll do," she said, coughing from a swallow of smoke. She stepped between them and tucked an arm under the elbow of each. "All for one, and one for all. Forward march!"
They moved down the embankment side by side to the sand-bed close to the stream, each of the three carrying a rifle tucked close to the side. From the chaparral keen eyes watched them, covering every step they took with ready weapons. Miss Lee's party turned to the right and followed the river-bed in the direction of Los Portales. For the wind was driving the fire down instead of up. Those in the mesquite held a parallel course to cut off any chance of escape.
Some change of wind currents swept the smoke toward them in great billows. It enveloped the fugitives in a dense cloud.
"Get yore head down to the water," Billie called into the ear of the girl.
They lay on the rocks in the shallow water and let the black smoke waves pour over them. Lee felt herself strangling and tried to rise, but a heavy hand on her shoulder held her face down. She sputtered and coughed, fighting desperately for breath. A silk handkerchief was slipped over her face and knotted behind. She felt sick and dizzy. The knowledge flashed across her mind that she could not stand this long. In its wake came another dreadful thought. Was she going to die?
The hand on her shoulder relaxed. Lee felt herself lifted to her feet. She caught at Billie's arm to steady herself, for she was still queer in the head. For a few moments she stood there coughing the smoke out of her lungs. His arm slipped around her shoulder.
"Take yore time," he advised.
A second shift of the breeze had swept the smoke away. This had saved their lives, but it had also given Snaith's men another chance at them A bullet whistled past the head of Clanton, who was for the time a few yards from his friends. Instantly he whipped the rifle up and fired.
"No luck" he grumbled. "My eyes are sore from the smoke. I can't half see."
Lee was not yet quite herself. The experience through which she had just passed had shaken her nerves.
"Let's get out of here quick!" she cried.
"Take yore time. There's no hurry," Prince iterated. "They won't shoot again, now Jim's close to us."
The younger man grinned, as he had a habit of doing when the cards fell against him. "Where'd we go? Look, they've headed us off. We can't travel forward. We can't go back. I expect we'll have to file on the quarter-section where we are," he drawled.
A rider had galloped forward and was dismounting close to the river. He took shelter behind a boulder.
Billie swept with a glance the plain to their right. A group of horsemen was approaching. "More good citizens comin' to be in at the finish of this man hunt. They ought to build a grand stand an' invite the whole town," he said sardonically.
A water-gutted arroyo broke the line of liver-bank. Jim, who was limping heavily, stopped and examined it.
"Let's stay here, Billie, an' fight it out. No use foolin' ourselves. We're trapped. Might as well call for a showdown here as anywhere."
Prince nodded. "Suits me. We'll make our stand right at the head of the arroyo." He turned abruptly to the girl. "It's got to be good-bye here, Miss Lee."
"That's whatever, littlest pilgrim," agreed Clanton promptly. "If you get a chance send word to Webb an' tell him how it was with us."
Her lip trembled. She knew that in the shadow of the immediate future red tragedy lurked. She had done her best to avert it and had failed. The very men she was trying to save had dismissed her.
"Must I go?" she begged.
"You must, Miss Lee. We're both grateful to you. Don't you ever doubt that!" Billie said, his earnest gaze full in hers.
The girl turned away and went up through the sand, her eyes filmed with tears so that she could not see where she was going. The two men entered the arroyo. Before they reached the head of it she could hear the crack of exploding rifles. One of the men across the river was firing at them and they were throwing bullets back at him. She wondered, shivering, whether it was her father.
It must have been a few seconds later that she heard the joyous "Eee-yip-eee!" of Prince. Almost at the same time a rider came splashing through the shallow water of the river toward her.
The man was her father. He swung down from the saddle and snatched her into his arms. His haggard face showed her how anxious he had been. She began to sob, overcome, perhaps, as much by his emotion as her own.
"I'll blacksnake the condemned fool that set fire to the prairie!" he swore, gulping down a lump in his throat. "Tell me you-all aren't hurt, Bertie Lee.... God! I thought you was swallowed up in that fire."
"Daddie, daddie I couldn't help it. I had to do it," she wept. "And--I thought I would choke to death, but Mr. Prince saved me. He kept my face close to the water and made me breathe through a handkerchief."
"Did he?" The man's face set grimly again. "Well, that won't save him. As for you, miss, you're goin' to yore room to live on bread an' water for a week. I wish you were a boy for about five minutes so's I could wear you to a frazzle with a cowhide."
Snaith's intentions toward Clanton and Prince had to be postponed for the present, the cattleman discovered a few minutes later. When he and Lee emerged from the river-bed to the bank above, the first thing he saw was a group of cowpunchers shaking hands gayly with the two fugitives. His jaw dropped.
"Where in Mexico did they come from?" he asked himself aloud.
"I expect they're Webb's riders," his daughter answered with a little sob of joy. "I thought they'd never come."
"You thought.... How did you know they were comin'?"
"Oh, I sent for them," The girl's dark eyes met his fearlessly. A flicker of a smile crept into them. "I've had the best of you all round, dad. You'd better make that two weeks on bread and water."
Wallace Snaith gathered his forces and retreated from the field of battle. A man on a spent horse met him at his own gate as he dismounted. He handed the cattleman a note.
On the sheet of dirty paper was written:
The birds you want are nesting in a dugout on the river four miles below town. You got to hurry or they'll be flown.
Snaith read the note, tore it in half, and tossed the pieces away. He turned to the messenger.
"Tell Joe he's just a few hours late. His news isn't news any more."
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