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Billie Prince laughed. The joke was on him, but he was glad of it. As sheriff of Washington County it had been his duty to accept any aid that might come from the treachery of Sanders; but as a friend of Jim Clanton he did not want to win over him by using such weapons.
"Tickled to death, ain't you?" snapped the ex-foreman sourly. "Looks to me like you didn't want to make this arrest, Mr. Sheriff. Looks to me like some one else has been doin' some double-crossin' besides me."
"Naturally you'd think that," cut in Goodheart dryly. "The facts probably are that Go-Get-'Em Jim, knowin' his friends pretty well, had you watched, found out you called on the sheriff, an' guessed the rest. He's not a fool, you know."
"That's right. Git ready an alibi," Sanders snarled.
Casually Goodheart picked up the piece of wrapping-paper upon which the note had been written. He read aloud the last sentence.
"'Crack Sanders one on the bean with your six-gun on account for me.' Seems to me if I was you, Buck, I'd alibi myself down the river into Texas as quick as I could jog a bronco along. But, of course, I don't know yore friend Go-Get-'Em as well as you do. Mebbe you'll be able to explain it to him. Tell him you were hard up an' needed the money."
The eyes of the rustler flashed from Goodheart to the sheriff. They were full of sinister suspicion. Had these men arranged to deliver him into the hands of Clanton? Was he himself going to fall into the pit he had dug?
"Gimme back my gun an' I'm not afraid of him or any of you," he bluffed.
"You'll get yore gun when we reach Los Portales," Prince told him. "I left it in my office."
"I ain't goin' to Los Portales."
"All right. Leave yore address and I'll send the gun by the buckboard driver."
All the baffled hate and cupidity of Sanders glared out of his wolfish face. "I'll let you know later where I'm at."
He straddled out of the house, pulled himself astride the waiting horse, and rode up the hill. Presently he disappeared over the crest.
"Much obliged, Jack," said Prince, smiling. "Exit Mr. Buck Sanders from New Mexico. Our loss is Texas's gain. Chalk up one bad man emigrated from Washington County."
"He's sure goin' to take my advice," agreed the lank deputy. A little chuckle of amusement escaped from his throat. "To the day of his death he'll think we sent word to Go-Get-'Em Jim. I'll bet my next pay-check against a dollar Mex that he forgets to send you that address."
Billie availed himself of the invitation of Clanton to make himself at home. He and his posse spent the night in the dug-out and returned to Los Portales next day. For the better part of a week he was detained there on business, after which he took the stage to Live-Oaks.
News was waiting for Prince at the county seat that led him for a time to forget the existence of Clanton. The buckboard driver from El Paso reported the worst sand-storm he had ever encountered. It had struck him a mile or two this side of the Mal-Pais, as the great lava beds in the Tularosa Basin are commonly called. He had unhitched the horses, overturned the buckboard, and huddled in the shelter of the bed. There he had lain crouched for ten hours while the drifting sand, fine as powder, blotted out the world and buried him in drifts. He was an old plainsman, tough as leather, and he had weathered the storm safely. A full day late he staggered into Live-Oaks a sorry sight.
The news that shook Live-Oaks into swift activity had to do with Lee Snaith. Just before the storm hit him the buckboard driver had met her riding toward the Mal-Pais.
Prince arrived to find the town upside down with the confusion of preparation. Swiftly he brought order out of the turmoil. He organized the rescue party, assigned leaders to the divisions, saw that each man was properly outfitted, and mapped off the territory to be covered by each posse. Outwardly he was cool, efficient, full of hopeful energy. But at his heart Billie felt an icy clutch of despair. What chance was there for Lee, caught unsheltered in the open, when the wiry, old Indian fighter, protected by his wagon, had barely won through alive?
Every horse in Live-Oaks that could be ridden was in the group that melted into the night to find Lee Snaith. Every living soul left in the little town was on the street to cheer the rescuers.
The sheriff divided his men. Most of them were to spend the night, and if necessary the next day and night, in combing the sand desert east of the Mal-Pais. Here Lee had last been seen, and here probably she had wandered round and round until the storm had beaten her down. It took little imagination to vision the girl, flailed by the sweeping sand, bewildered by it, choked at every gasping breath, hopelessly lost in the tempest.
Yet some bell of hope rang in Billie's breast. She might have reached the lava. If so, there was a chance that she might be alive. For though the wind had sweep enough here, the fine dust-sand of the alluvial plain could not be carried so densely into this rock-sea. Perhaps she had slipped into a fissure and found safety.
For fifty miles this great igneous bed stretches, a rough and broken sea of stone, across the thirsty desert. Its texture is like that of slag from a furnace. Once, in the morning of the world, it flowed from the crater along the line of least resistance, a vitreous river of fire. In a great molten mass it swept into the valleys, crawling like a great snake here and there, pushing fiery tongues into every crevice of the hills.
The margin of its flow is a cliff or steep slope varying in height from a few feet to that of a good-sized tree. Between the silt plain and the general level of its bed rises a terrace. In front of it Prince stopped and distributed the men he had reserved to search the lava bed. He gave definite, peremptory orders.
"We'll keep about two hundred yards apart. Every twenty minutes each of you will fire his revolver. If any of you find Miss Snaith or any evidence of her, shoot three times in rapid succession. Each of you pass the signal down the line by firing four shots. Those who hear the three shots go in as fast as you can to the rescue. The others--those farther away, who hear the four shots only--will turn an' work back to the plain, continuing to fire once every twenty minutes. Do exactly as I tell you, boys. If you don't, some one will be lost an' may never get out alive. If any one of you gets out of touch with the rest of us, stay right where you are till mornin', then come out by the sun."
The horses were left in charge of a Mexican boy. The surface of the deposit is so broken that even a man on foot has difficulty in traversing it. Prince crawled forward from the terrace up the rough slope of the cliff which at this point bounded it. At the top of the rim he rose and came face to face with another man.
"A good deal like frozen hell, Billie," the other said casually.
"Where did you come from?" demanded the sheriff, amazed.
Jim Clanton laughed grimly. "I've been with yore party half an hour. Why shouldn't I be here when Lee Snaith is lost?"
"You were hiding in Live-Oaks?"
"Mebbeso. Anyway, I'm here. I'll take the right flank, Billie."
"Do you think there's a chance, Jim?" The voice of Prince shook with emotion. It was the first sign of distress he had given.
Clanton reflected just a moment before he answered. "I think there's just a chance. She saved our lives once, Billie. If she's alive we'll find her, you an' me."
"By God, yes." Prince turned away. He could not talk about it without breaking down.
In the stress of a great shock Billie had made a vital discovery. The most important thing that would ever come to him in life was to find Lee Snaith alive. How blind he had been! He could see her now in imagination, as in reality he had seen her a hundred times, moving in the sun-pour with elastic tread, full-throated and deep-chested, athrob with life in every generous vein. How passionately she had loved things brave and true! How anger had flamed up in her like fire among tow at meanness and hypocrisy. Surely all the beauty of her person, the fineness of her character, could not be blotted out so wantonly. If there was any economy in his world God would never permit waste like that.
He wanted her. His soul cried out for her. and stormily he prayed that he might find her alive and well, that the chance might still be given him to tell her how much he loved her.
Sometimes he covered small distances where the flow structure was comparatively smooth, broken only by minor irregularities. Again he came to abrupt pits, deep caverns, tumbled heaps of broken slabs, or jagged chunks of lava twisted into strange shapes. No doubt the volcanic flow had hardened to a crust on top, cracked, and sunk into the furnace below. This process must have gone on indefinitely.
He crept from slab to slab, pulled himself across chasms, worked slowly forward in the darkness. At intervals he fired and listened for an answer. Occasionally there drifted to him the sound of a shot from one of the other searchers. As the hours passed and brought to him no signal that the girl had been found, his hopes ebbed. It was very unlikely that she could have wandered so far into the bad lands as this.
He shuddered to think of her alone in this vast tomb of death. Suppose she were here and they never found her. Suppose she were asleep when he passed, worn out by terror and exhaustion. His voice grew hoarse from shouting. Sometimes, when the thought of her fate would become an agony to him, he could hardly keep his shout from rising to a scream.
Billie struck a match and looked at his watch. It was five minutes past three. A faint gray was beginning to sift into the sky. He had been nearly seven hours in the Mal-Pais. Out in God's country the world would soon be shaking sleep from its eyes. In this death zone there was neither waking nor sleeping. "Frozen hell," Clanton had called it. Prince shuddered.
The flare of the match had showed him that he was standing close to the edge of a fissure. In the darkness he could not see to the bottom of it.
A faint breath of a whimper floated to him. He grew rigid, every nerve taut. He dared not let himself believe it could be real. Of course he was imagining sounds. Presently, no doubt, he would hear voices. In this devil's caldron a man could not stay quite sane.
Again, as if from below his feet, was lifted a strangled, little sob.
"Lee!" he called huskily with what was left of his voice.
Something in the cavern moved. By means of outcropping spars of rock he lowered himself swiftly.
The darkness was Stygian. He struck another match.
From the gloom beyond the space lit by the small flame came the rustle of something stirring. The match burned out. He lit another and groped forward. His foot struck an impediment.
He looked down into the startled eyes and white face of Lee Snaith.
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