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The weeks slipped away and brought with them healing to the wounded man at Seven Mile. He moved from the bed where at first he had spent his days to a lounge in the living room, and there, from the bay window, he could look out at the varied life of the cattle country. Men came and went in the dust of the drag drive, their approach heralded by the bawl of thirsty cattle. Others cantered up and bought tobacco and canned goods. The stage arrived twice a week with its sack of mail, and always when it did Public Opinion gathered upon the porch of the store, as of yore. Phil Sanderson he saw often, Yeager sometimes, and once or twice he caught a glimpse of Healy's saturnine face.
A scarcity of beef and a sharp rise in prices brought the round-up earlier than usual. Every spare man was called upon to help comb the hills for the wild steers that ran the wooded water-sheds, as untamed as the deer and the lynx. Even the storekeeper, Benwell, was pressed into the service. 'Rastus and the nester were the only men about the place, the deputy sheriff having been recalled to Noches on the collapse of Healy's story.
The removal to a distance of the rest of her admirers did not have the effect of throwing Keller alone with Phyllis more often. The young mistress of the ranch invited Bess Purdy to visit her, and now he never saw her except in the presence of her other guest.
Bess took him in at once, evidencing her approval of him by entering upon a spirited war of repartee with him. She had not been in the house twenty-four hours before she had unbosomed herself of a derisive confidence.
"I don't believe you're a bank robber, at all! I don't believe you are even a rustler! You're a false alarm!"
Both Keller and Miss Sanderson smiled at the daring of the girl's challenge. But the former defended himself with apparent heat.
"What makes you think so? Why should you undermine my reputation with such an assertion? You can't talk that way about me without proving it, Miss Purdy."
"Well, I don't. You don't look it."
"I can't help that. You ask Mr. Healy. He'll tell you I am."
"You'll need a better witness than Brill before I'll believe it."
"And I thought you were going to like me," he lamented.
"I like a lot of people who aren't ruffians, but of course I can't admire you so much as if you were a really truly bad man."
"But if I promise to be one?"
"Oh, anybody can promise," she flung back, eyes bubbling with laughter.
"Wait till I get on my feet again."
A youth galloped up to the house in a cloud of alkali dust.
"There's Cuffs," announced Phyllis, smiling at Bess.
That young woman blushed a little, supposed, aloud, she must go out to see him, and withdrew in seeming reluctance.
"He wants Bess to go with him to the Frying Pan dance. He sent a note over from the round-up to ask her. She hasn't had a chance yet to tell him that she would," explained her friend.
"How will he take her?" asked the nester, his eyes quickening.
"In the surrey, I suppose. Why?"
"The surrey will hold four."
She made no pretense of not understanding. Her look met his in a betrayal of the pleasure his invitation gave her. Yet she shook her head.
"No, thank you."
"But why--if I may ask?"
"Ah! But you mayn't," she smiled.
He considered that. "You like to dance."
"Most girls do."
"Then it is because of me," he soliloquized aloud.
"Please," she begged lightly.
"My reputation, I suppose."
She began to roll up the embroidery upon which she was busy. But he got to the door before her.
"No, you don't."
"You are not going to make me tell you why I can't go with you, are you?"
"That, to start with. Then I'm going to make you tell me some other things."
"But if I don't want to tell?" Her eyes were wide open with surprise, for he had never before taken the masterful line with her. Deep down, she liked it; but she had no intention of letting him know so.
"There are times not to tell, and there are times to tell. This will be one of the last kind, Phyllis."
She tried mockery. "When you throw a big chest like that I suppose you always get what you want."
"You act right funny, girl. I never see you alone any more. We haven't had a good talk for more than a week. Now, why?"
She thought of telling him she had been too busy; then, moved by an impulse of impatience, met his gaze fully, and told him part of the truth.
"I should think you would understand that a girl has to be careful of what she does!"
"You mean about us being friends?"
"Oh, we can be friends, but----If you can't see it, then I can't tell you," she finished.
"I can see it, I reckon. You saved my life, and I expect some human cat got his claws out and said it was because you were fond of me.
"Then you saved it again by your nursing. No two ways about that. Doc Brown says you and Jim did. I was so sick folks knew it had to be. But now I'm getting well, you have to show them you're not interested in me. Isn't that about it?"
"But you don't have to show me, too, do you?"
"Am I not--courteous?"
"I ain't worrying any about your courtesy. But, look here, Phyllie. Have you forgotten what happened in the kitchen that night you helped me to escape?"
She flashed him one look of indignant reproach. "I should think you would be the last person in the world to remind me of it."
"I've got a right to mention it because I've asked you a question since that ain't been answered. That week's been up ten days."
"I'm not going to answer it now."
And with that she slipped past him and from the room.
He ran a hand through his curls and voiced his perplexity. "Now, if a woman ain't the strangest ever. Just as a fellow is ready to tell her things, she gets mad and hikes."
Nevertheless he smiled, not uncheerfully. What experience he had had with young women told him the signs were not hopeless for his success. He was not sure of her, not by a good deal. He had captured her imagination. But to win a girl's fancy is not the same as to storm her heart. He often caught himself wondering just where he stood with her. For himself, he knew he was fathoms deep in love.
She was in his thoughts when he fell asleep.
He awoke in the darkness, and sat upright in the bed, a feeling of calamity oppressing him. Something pungent tickled his nostrils.
A faint crackling sounded in the air.
Swiftly he slipped on such clothes as he needed and stepped into the passage. A heavy smoke was pouring up the back stairway. He knocked insistently upon the door where Phyllis and her guest were sleeping.
"What is it?" a voice demanded.
"Get up and dress, Miss Sanderson! The house is on fire! You have plenty of time, I think. If there's any hurry I'll let you know after I've looked."
He went down the front stairs and found that the fire was in the back part of the house. Already volumes of smoke with spitting tongues of flame were reaching toward the foot of the stairs. He ran up to the room where the girls were dressing, and called to them:
"Are you ready?"
The door opened, to show him two very pale girls, each carrying a bundle of clothes. They were only partially dressed, but wrappers covered their disarray. Keller went to the clothes closet, emptied it with a sweep and lift of his arm, and returned, to lead the way downstairs.
"Take a breath before you start. The smoke's bad, but there is no real danger," he told them as he plunged forward.
At the foot of the stairs he stopped to see that they were following him closely, then flung open the outer door and let in a rush of cool, sweet air. In another moment they were outside, safe and unhurt.
Phyllis drew a long breath before she said:
"The house is gone!"
"If there is anything you want particularly from the living room I can get in through the window," Keller told her.
She shuddered. Flame jets were already shooting out here and there. "I wouldn't let you go back for the world. We didn't get out too soon."
"No," he agreed.
A sniveling voice behind them broke in: "Where is Mr. Phil? I yain't seen him yet."
Larrabie swung round on 'Rastus like a flash. "What do you mean? He's at the round-up, of course."
The little fellow began to bawl: "No, sah. He done come home late last night. Aftah you-all had gone to bed. He's in his room, tha's where he is."
Phyllis caught at the arm of Keller to steady her. She was colorless to the lips.
"Oh, God! Oh, God!" she cried faintly.
The nester pushed her gently into the arms of her guest.
"Take care of her, Bess. I'll get Phil."
He ran round the house to the back. The bedroom occupied by young Sanderson was on the first floor. The ranger caught up a stick, smashed the window, and tore out the frame by main strength. Presently he was inside, groping through the dense smoke toward the bed.
Flames leaped at him from out of it like darting serpents. His hair, his face, his clothes, caught fire before he had discovered that the bed had been used, but was now empty. The door into the hall was open, and through it were pouring billows of smoke. Evidently Phil must have tried to escape that way and been overpowered.
The young man caught up a towel and wrapped it around his throat and mouth, then plunged forward into the caldron of the passage. The smoke choked him and the intense heat peeled his face and made the endurance of it an agony.
He stumbled over something soft, and discovered with his hands that it was a body. Smothered and choked, half frantic with the heat, he struggled back into the bedroom with his burden.
Somehow he reached the window, stumbled through it, and dragged the inanimate body after him. Then, with Phil in his arms, he reeled forward into the fresh air beyond.
With a cry Phyllis broke from Bess and ran toward him. But before she had reached the rescuer and the rescued, Keller went down in total collapse. He, too, was unconscious when she knelt beside him and began with her hands to crush out the smoldering fire in his clothes.
He opened his eyes and smiled faintly when he saw who it was.
"How's the boy?" he asked.
"He is breathing," cried Bess joyfully, from where she was bending over Sanderson.
"You go attend to him. I'm all right now."
"Are you truly?"
He proved it by sitting up, and presently by rising and joining with her the group gathered around Phil. For Aunt Becky had now emerged from her cabin and taken charge of affairs.
Phil was supported to the bunk house and put to bed by Keller and 'Rastus. It was already plain that he would be none the worse for his adventure after a night's good sleep. Aunt Becky applied to his case the homely remedies she had used before, while the others stood around the bed and helped as best they could. Strangely enough, he was not burned at all. In this he had escaped better than Keller, whose hair and eyebrows and skin were all the worse for singeing.
The nester noticed that Phyllis, in handing a bowl of water to Bess, used awkwardly her left hand. The right one, he observed, was held with the palm concealed against the folds of her skirt.
Presently Phyllis, her anxiety as to Phil relieved, left Aunt Becky and Bess to care for him, while she went out to make arrangements for disposing of the party until morning. The nester followed her into the night and walked beside her toward the house of the foreman. The darkness was lit up luridly by the shooting flames of the burning house.
"The store isn't going to catch fire. That's one good thing," Keller observed, by way of comfort.
"Yes." There was a catch in her voice, for all the little treasures of her girlhood, gathered from time to time, were going up in smoke.
"You're insured, I reckon?"
"Well, it might be worse."
She thought of the narrow escape Phil had had, and nodded.
"You'll have to sleep in the bunk house. Take any of the beds you like. Bess and I will put up at the foreman's," she explained.
As is the custom among bachelors who attend to their own domestic affairs, they found the bed just as the foreman had stepped out of it two weeks before. While Keller held the lantern, Phyllis made it up, and again he saw that she was using her right hand very carefully and flinching when it touched the blankets. Putting the lantern down on the table, he walked up to her.
"I'll make the bed."
She stepped back, with a little laugh. "All right."
He made it, then turned to her at once.
"I want to see your hand."
She gave him the left one, even as he had done on the occasion of their second meeting. He took it, and kept it.
"Now the other."
"What do you want with it?"
"Never mind." He reached down and drew it from the folds of her skirt, where it had again fallen. Very gently he turned it so that the palm was up. Ugly blisters and a red seam showed where she had burned herself. He looked at her without speaking.
"It's nothing," she told him, a little hysterically.
For an instant her mind flashed back to the time when Buck Weaver had drawn the cactus spines out of that same hand.
His voice was rough with feeling. "I can see it isn't. And you got it for me--putting out the fire in my clothes. I reckon I cayn't thank you, you poor little tortured hand." He lifted the fingers to his lips and kissed them.
"Don't," she cried brokenly.
"Has it got to be this way always, Phyllie--you giving and me taking?" His hand tightened on hers ever so slightly, and a spasm of pain shot across her face. He looked at the burned fingers again tenderly. "Does it hurt pretty bad, girl?"
"I wish it was ten times as bad!" she broke out, with a sob. "You saved Phil's life--at the risk of your own. I wish I could tell you how I feel, what I think of you, how splendid you are." In default of which ability, she began to cry softly.
He wasted no more time. He did not ask her whether he might. With a gesture, his arm went around her and drew her to him.
"Let me tell what I think of you, instead, girl o' mine. I cayn't tell it, either, for that matter, but I reckon I can make out to show you, honey."
"I didn't mean--that way," she protested, between laughter and tears.
"Well, that's the way I mean."
Neither spoke again for a minute. Than: "Do you really--love me?" she murmured.
"What do you think?" He laughed with the sheer unconquerable boyish delight in her.
"I think you're pretending right well," she smiled.
"If I am making believe."
"If you are." Her arms slipped round his neck with a swift impulse of love. "But you're not. Tell me you're not, Larry."
He told her, in the wordless way lovers have at command, the way that is more convincing than speech.
So Phyllis, from the troubled waters of doubt, came at last to safe harborage.
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