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From a cleft in the hills two riders emerged, following a little gulch to the point where it widened into a draw. The alkali dust of Arizona lay thick upon their broad-brimmed Stetsons and every inch of exposed surface, but through the gray coating bloomed the freshness of youth. It rang from their voices, was apparent in the modelling and carriage of their figures. The young man was sinewy and hard as nails, the girl supple and wiry, of a slender grace, straight-backed as an Indian in the saddle.
Just where the draw dipped down into the grassy park they drew rein an instant. Faint and far a sound drifted to them. Somebody down in the park had fired a rifle.
"I don't agree with you, Phil," the girl said, picking up the thread of their conversation where they had dropped it some minutes earlier. "The nesters have as much right here as we have. They come here to settle, and they take up government land. Why shouldn't they?"
"Because we got here first," he retorted impatiently. "Because our cattle and sheep have been feeding on the land they are fencing. Because they close the water holes and the creeks and claim they are theirs. It means the end of the open range. That's what it means."
"Of course that's what it means. We'll have to adapt ourselves to it. You talk foolishness when you make threats to drive out the nesters. That is the sort of thing Buck Weaver has been trying to do. It's absurd. The law is back of them. You would only come to trouble, and if you did succeed others would take their places."
"And rustle our cattle," he added sullenly.
"It isn't proved they are the rustlers. You haven't a shred of evidence. Perhaps they are, but you should prove it before you make the charge."
"If they aren't, who is?" he flared up.
"I don't know. But whoever it is will be caught and punished some day. There is no doubt at all about that."
"You talk a heap of foolishness, Phyl," he answered resentfully. "My notion is they never will be caught. What makes you so sure they will?"
They had been riding down the draw, and at this moment Phyllis looked up, to see a rider silhouetted against the sky line on the ridge above.
"Oh, you Brill!" she cried, with a wave of her quirt.
The man turned, saw them, and rode slowly down. He nodded, after the fashion of the range, first to the girl, and then to her brother.
"Morning," he nodded. "Headed for Mesa? Here, too."
He fell in with them and rode beside the girl. Presently they topped a little hillock, and looked down into the park. It had about the area of a mile, and was perhaps twice as long as broad. Wooded spurs ran down from the hills into it here and there, and through the meadow leaped a silvery stream.
"Hello! Wonder where that smoke comes from?"
It was Healy that spoke. He pointed to a faint cloud rising from a distance. Even before he began to speak, however, Phyllis had her field glasses out, and was adjusting them to her eyes.
"There's a fire there and a man standing over it," she presently announced. "There's something else there, too. I can't make it out--something lying down."
The men glanced at each other, and in the meeting of their eyes some intelligence passed between them. It was as if the younger accused and the older sullenly denied.
"Lemme have the glasses," Phil said to his sister almost roughly.
Healy glanced at Phil swiftly, covertly, as the latter adjusted the glasses. "She's right about the fire and the man. I can see as much with my naked eyes," he cut in.
The boy looked long, lowered the glasses, and met his friend's eye with a kind of shamefaced hesitation. But apparently he gathered reassurance from the quiet steadiness with which the other's gaze met him. He handed the glasses to Healy. When the latter lowered them his face was grave. "There's a man and a fire and a cow and a calf. When these four things meet up together, what does it mean?"
"Branding!" cried the girl.
"That's right--branding. And when the cow is dead what does it mean?" Brill asked, his eyes full on Phil.
"Rustling!" she breathed again.
"You've said it, Phyl. We've got one of them at last," he cried jubilantly.
Phil, hanging between doubt and suspicion and shame, brightened at the enthusiasm of the other.
"Right you are, Brill. We'll solve this mystery once for all."
Healy, unstrapping the case in which lay his rifle, shot a question at the boy. "Armed, Phil?"
The lad nodded. "I brought my six-gun for rattlesnakes."
"Are you going to--to----" cried Phyllis, the color gone from her face.
"We're going to capture him alive if we can, Phyl. You're to wait right here till we come back. You may hear shooting. Don't let that worry you. We've got the drop on him, or will have. Nobody is going to get hurt if he acts sensible," Healy reassured.
"Don't you move from here. You stay right where you are," her brother ordered sharply.
"Yes," she said, and was aware that her throat was suddenly parched. "You'll be careful, won't you, Phil?"
"Sure," he called back, as he put his horse at a canter to follow his friend up the draw.
The sound of the hoofs died away, and she was alone. That they were going to circle in and out among the tangle of hills until they were opposite the miscreant, she knew, but in spite of Brill's promise she had a heart of water. With trembling fingers she raised the glasses again, and focused them on that point which was to be the centre of the drama.
The man was moving about now, quite unconscious of the danger that menaced him. What she looked at was the great crime of Cattleland. All her life she had been taught to hold it in horror. But now something human in her was deeper than her detestation of the cowardly and awful thing this man had just done. She wanted to cry out to him a warning, and did in a faint, ineffective voice that carried not a tenth of the distance between them.
She had promised to remain where she was, but her tense interest in what was doing drew her forward in spite of herself. She rode along the ridge that bordered the park, at first slowly and then quicker as the impulse grew in her to be in at the finish.
The climax came. She saw him look round quickly, and in an instant his pony was at the gallop and he was lying low on its neck. A shot rang out, and another, but without checking his flight. He turned in the saddle and waved a derisive hand at the shooters, then plunged into a wash and disappeared.
What inspired her she could never tell. Perhaps it was her indignation at the thing he had done, perhaps her anger at that mocking wave of the hand with which he had vanished. She wheeled her horse, and put it at a canter down the nearest draw so as to try to intercept him at right angles. Her heart beat fast with excitement, but she was conscious of no fear.
Before she had covered half the distance, she knew she was going to be too late to cut off his retreat. Faintly, she heard the rhythm of hoofs striking the rocky bottom of the draw. Abruptly they ceased. Wondering what that could mean, she found her answer presently. For the pounding of the galloping broncho had renewed itself, and closer. The man was riding up the gulch toward her. He had turned into its mesquite-laced entrance for a hiding place. Phyllis drew rein, and waited quietly to confront him, but with a pulse that hammered the moments for her.
A white-stockinged roan, plowing a way through heavy sand, labored into view round the bend, its rider slewed in the saddle with his whole attention upon the possible pursuit. Not until he was almost upon her did the man turn. With a startled exclamation at sight of the motionless figure, he pulled up sharply. It was the nester, Keller.
"You," she cried.
"Happy to meet you, Miss Sanderson," he told her jauntily.
His revolver slid into its holster, and his hat came off in a low bow. White, even teeth gleamed in a sardonic smile.
"So you are a--rustler," she told him scornfully.
"I hate to contradict a lady," he came back, with a kind of bitter irony.
She saw something else, a deepening stain that soaked slowly down his shirt sleeve.
"You are wounded."
"Come to think of it, I believe I am," he laughed shortly.
"I haven't got the doctor's report yet." There was a gleam of whimsical gayety in his eyes as he added: "I was going to find him when I had the good luck to meet up with you."
He was a hunted miscreant, wounded, riding for his life as a hurt wolf dodges to shake off the pursuit, but strangely enough her gallant heart thrilled to the indomitable pluck of him. Never had she seen a man who looked more the vagabond enthroned. His crisp bronze curls and his superb shoulders were bathed in the sunpour. Not once, since his eyes had fallen on her, had he looked back to see if his hunters had picked up the lost trail. He was as much at ease as if his whole thought at meeting her were the pleasure of the encounter.
"Can you ride?" she demanded.
"I can stick on a hawss if it's plumb gentle. Leastways I've been trying to for twenty years," he drawled.
Her impatient gesture waved his flippancy aside. "I mean, are you too much hurt to ride? I'm not going to leave you here like a wounded coyote. Can you follow me if I lead the way?"
She turned. He followed her obediently, but with a ghost of a smile still flickering on his face.
"Am I your prisoner, Miss Sanderson?" he presently wanted to know.
"I'm not thinking of prisoners just now," she answered shortly, with an anxious backward glance.
Presently she pulled up and wheeled her horse, so that when he halted they sat facing each other.
"Let me see your arm," she ordered.
Obediently he held out to her the one that happened to be nearest. It was the unwounded one. An angry spark gleamed in her eye.
"This is no time to be fresh. Give me the other."
"Yes, ma'am." he answered, with deceptive meekness.
Without comment, she turned back the sleeve which came to the wrist gauntlet, and discovered a furrow ridged by a rifle bullet. It was a clean flesh wound, neither deep nor long enough to cause him trouble except for the immediate loss of blood. To her inexperience it looked pretty bad.
"A plumb scratch," he explained.
She took the kerchief from her neck, and tied it about the hurt, then pulled down the sleeve and buttoned it over the brown forearm. All this she did quite impersonally, her face free of the least sympathy.
"Thank you, ma'am. You're a right friendly enemy."
"It isn't a matter of friendship at all. One couldn't leave a wounded jack rabbit in pain," she retorted coldly, taking up the trail again.
There was room for two abreast, and he chose to ride beside her. "So you tied me up because it was your Christian duty," he soliloquized aloud. "Just the same as if I had been a mangy coyote that was suffering."
He let his cool eyes rest on her with a hint of amusement. "And what were you thinking of doing with me now, ma'am?"
"I'm going to take you up to Jim Yeager's mine. He is doing his assessment work now, and he'll look out for you for a day or two."
"Look out for me in a locked room?" he wanted to know casually.
"I didn't say so. It isn't my business to arrest criminals," she told him icily.
His eyes gleamed mischief. "Is it your business to help them to escape?"
"I'm not helping you to escape. I'll not risk your dying in the hills alone. That is all."
"Jim Yeager is your friend?"
"And you guarantee he'll keep his mouth padlocked and not betray me?"
"He'll do as he pleases about that," she said indifferently.
"Then I don't reckon I'll trouble his hospitality. Good-by, Miss Sanderson. I've enjoyed meeting you very much."
He checked his pony and bowed.
"Where are you going?" the girl exclaimed.
"Up Bear Creek."
"It's twenty miles. You can't do it."
"Sure I can. Thanks for your kindness, Miss Sanderson. I'll return the handkerchief some day," and with a touch swung round his pony.
"You're not going. I won't have it, and you wounded!"
He turned in the saddle, smiling at her with jaunty insouciance.
"I'll answer for Jim. He won't betray you," she promised, subduing her pride.
"Thanks. I'll take your word for it, but I won't trouble your friend. I've had all the Christian charity that's good for me this mo'ning," he drawled.
At that she flamed out passionately: "Do you want me to tell you that I like you, knowing what you are? Do you want me to pretend that I feel friendly when I hate you?"
"Do you want me to be under obligations to folks that hate me?" he came back with his easy smile.
"You have lost a lot of blood. Your arm is still bleeding. You know I can't let you go alone."
"You're ce'tainly aching for a chance to be a Good Samaritan, Miss Sanderson."
With this he left her. But he had not gone a hundred yards before he heard her pony cantering after his. One glance told him she was furious, both at him and at herself.
"Did you come after your handkerchief, ma'am? I'm not through with it yet," he said innocently.
"I'm going with you. I'm not going to leave you till we meet some one that will take charge of you," she choked.
"It isn't necessary. I'm much obliged, ma'am, but you're overestimating the effect of this pill your friend injected into me."
"Still, I'm going. I won't have your death on my hands," she told him defiantly.
"Sho! I ain't aimin' to pass over the divide on account of a scratch like this. There's no danger but what I can look out for myself."
She waited in silence for him to start, looking straight ahead of her.
He tried in vain to argue her out of it. She had nothing to say, and he saw she was obstinately determined to carry her point.
Finally, with a little chuckle at her stubbornness, he gave in and turned round.
"All right. Yeager's it is. We're acting like a pair of kids, seems to me." This last with a propitiatory little smile toward her which she disdained to answer.
Yeager saw them from afar, and recognized the girl.
"Hello, Phyllis!" he shouted down. "With you in a minute."
The girl slipped to the ground, and climbed the steep trail to meet him. Her crisp "Wait here," flung over her shoulder with the slightest turn of the head, kept Keller in the saddle.
Halfway up she and the man met. The one waiting below could not hear what they said, but he could tell she was explaining the situation to Yeager. The latter nodded from time to time, protested, was vehemently overruled, and seemed to leave the matter with her. Together they retraced their way. Young Yeager, in flannel shirt and half-leg miner's boots, was a splendid specimen of bronzed Arizona. His level gaze judged the man on horseback, approved him, and met him eye to eye.
"Better light, Mr. Keller. If you come in we'll have a look at your arm. An accident like that is a mighty awkward thing to happen to a man on the trail. It's right fortunate Miss Sanderson found you so soon after it happened."
The nester knew a surge of triumph in his blood, but it did not show in the impassive face which he turned upon his host.
"It was right fortunate for me," he said, swinging from the saddle. Incidentally he was wondering what story had been narrated to Yeager, but he took a chance without hesitation. "A fellow oughtn't to be so careless when he's got a gun in his hand."
"You're right, seh. In this country of heavy underbrush a man's gun is liable to go off and hit somebody any time if he ain't careful. You're in big luck you didn't shoot yourself up a heap worse."
Yeager led the way to his cabin, and offered Phyllis the single chair he boasted, and the nester a seat on the bed. Sitting beside him, he examined the wound and washed it.
"Comes to being an invalid I'm a false alarm," Keller said apologetically. "I didn't want to come, but Miss Sanderson would bring me."
"She was dead right, too. Time you had ridden twenty miles through the hot sun with that wound you would have been in a raging fever."
"One way and another I'm quite in her debt."
"That's so," agreed Yeager, intent on his work.
She refused to meet the nester's smile. "Fiddlesticks! You talk mighty foolish, Jim. I wouldn't go away and leave a wounded dog if I could help it."
"Suppose the dog were a sheep-killer?" Keller asked with his engaging, impudent smile.
A dust cloud rose from her skirt under a stroke of the restless quirt. "I'd do my best for it and let it settle with the law afterward."
"Even if it were a wolf caught in a trap?"
"I should put it out of its pain. No matter how much I detested it, I wouldn't leave it there to suffer."
"I'm quite sure you wouldn't," the wounded man agreed.
Yeager looked from one to the other, not quite catching the drift of the underlying meaning. Another thing puzzled him, too. But, like most men of the unfenced Southwest, Yeager had a large capacity for silence. Now he attended strictly to his business, without mentioning what he had noticed.
The wound dressed, Phyllis rose to leave. "You'll be down for your mail to-morrow, Jim," she suggested, as she sauntered toward the door.
"Sure. I'll let you know how our patient is getting along."
"Oh, he's yours. I don't want any of the credit," she returned carelessly.
Then, the words scarce off her lips, she gave a little cry of alarm, and stepped quickly back into the room. What she had seen had sapped the color from her face. Yeager started forward, but she waved him back.
"It's Phil and Brill Healy. You've got to hide us, Jim," she told him tensely.
The nester began to grin. He always did when he faced a difficulty apparently insurmountable. Also his fingers slid toward the butt of his revolver.
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