Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Curtis A. Weyant
Keith of the Border
A Tale of the Plains
By Randall Parrish
Author of "My Lady of the North," "My Lady of the
South." "When Wilderness Was King," etc.
I The Plainsman
II The Scene of Tragedy
III An Arrest
IV An Old Acquaintance
V The One Way
VI The Escape
VII In the Sand Desert
VIII The Wilderness Cabin
IX The Girl of the Cabin
X Mr. Hawley Reveals Himself
XI The Fight in the Dark
XII Through the Night Shadows
XIII The Ford of the Arkansas
XIV The Landlady of the Occidental
XV Again Christie Maclaire
XVI Introducing Doctor Fairbain
XVII In the Next Room
XVIII Interviewing Willoughby
XIX A Glimpse at Conspiracy
XX Hope Goes to Sheridan
XXI The Marshal of Sheridan
XXII An Interrupted Interview
XXIII An Unexpected Meeting
XXIV A Mistake in Assassination
XXV A Reappearance of the General
XXVI A Chance Conversation
XXVII Miss Hope Suggests
XXVIII The Stage Door of the Trocadero
XXIX By Force of Arms
XXX In Christie's Room
XXXI The Search for the Missing
XXXII Fairbain and Christie
XXXIII Following the Trail
XXXIV Again at the Cabin
XXXV The Cabin Taken
XXXVI The Duel in the Desert
XXXVII At the Water-Hole
Keith of the Border
A Tale of the Plains
The man was riding just below the summit of the ridge, occasionally
uplifting his head so as to gaze across the crest, shading his eyes with
one hand to thus better concentrate his vision. Both horse and rider
plainly exhibited signs of weariness, but every movement of the latter
showed ceaseless vigilance, his glance roaming the barren ridges, a brown
Winchester lying cocked across the saddle pommel, his left hand taut on
the rein. Yet the horse he bestrode scarcely required restraint, advancing
slowly, with head hanging low, and only occasionally breaking into a brief
trot under the impetus of the spur.
The rider was a man approaching thirty, somewhat slender and long of limb,
but possessing broad, squared shoulders above a deep chest, sitting the
saddle easily in plainsman fashion, yet with an erectness of carriage
which suggested military training. The face under the wide brim of the
weather-worn slouch hat was clean-shaven, browned by sun and wind, and
strongly marked, the chin slightly prominent, the mouth firm, the gray
eyes full of character and daring. His dress was that of rough service,
plain leather "chaps," showing marks of hard usage, a gray woolen shirt
turned low at the neck, with a kerchief knotted loosely about the sinewy
bronzed throat. At one hip dangled the holster of a "forty-five," on the
other hung a canvas-covered canteen. His was figure and face to be noted
anywhere, a man from whom you would expect both thought and action, and
one who seemed to exactly fit into his wild environment.
Where he rode was the very western extreme of the prairie country,
billowed like the sea, and from off the crest of its higher ridges, the
wide level sweep of the plains was visible, extending like a vast brown
ocean to the foothills of the far-away mountains. Yet the actual
commencement of that drear, barren expanse was fully ten miles distant,
while all about where he rode the conformation was irregular, comprising
narrow valleys and swelling mounds, with here and there a sharp ravine,
riven from the rock, and invisible until one drew up startled at its very
brink. The general trend of depression was undoubtedly southward, leading
toward the valley of the Arkansas, yet irregular ridges occasionally cut
across, adding to the confusion. The entire surrounding landscape
presented the same aspect, with no special object upon which the eye could
rest for guidance--no tree, no upheaval of rock, no peculiarity of summit,
no snake-like trail,--all about extended the same dull, dead monotony of
brown, sun-baked hills, with slightly greener depressions lying between,
interspersed by patches of sand or the white gleam of alkali. It was a
dreary, deserted land, parched under the hot summer sun, brightened by no
vegetation, excepting sparse bunches of buffalo grass or an occasional
stunted sage bush, and disclosing nowhere slightest sign of human
The rising sun reddened the crest of the hills, and the rider, halting his
willing horse, sat motionless, gazing steadily into the southwest.
Apparently he perceived nothing there unusual, for he slowly turned his
body about in the saddle, sweeping his eyes, inch by inch, along the line
of the horizon, until the entire circuit had been completed. Then his
compressed lips smiled slightly, his hand unconsciously patting the
"I reckon we're still alone, old girl," he said quietly, a bit of Southern
drawl in the voice. "We'll try for the trail, and take it easy."
He swung stiffly out of the saddle, and with reins dangling over his
shoulder, began the slower advance on foot, the exhausted horse trailing
behind. His was not a situation in which one could feel certain of safety,
for any ridge might conceal the wary foemen he sought to avoid, yet he
proceeded now with renewed confidence. It was the Summer of 1868, and the
place the very heart of the Indian country, with every separate tribe
ranging between the Yellowstone and the Brazos, either restless or openly
on the war-path. Rumors of atrocities were being retold the length and
breadth of the border, and every report drifting in to either fort or
settlement only added to the alarm. For once at least the Plains Indians
had discovered a common cause, tribal differences had been adjusted in war
against the white invader, and Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahoes, Cheyennes,
and Sioux, had become welded together in savage brotherhood. To oppose
them were the scattered and unorganized settlers lining the more eastern
streams, guarded by small detachments of regular troops posted here and
there amid that broad wilderness, scarcely within touch of each other.
Everywhere beyond these lines of patrol wandered roaming war parties,
attacking travellers on the trails, raiding exposed settlements, and
occasionally venturing to try open battle with the small squads of armed
men. In this stress of sudden emergency--every available soldier on active
duty--civilians had been pressed into service, and hastily despatched to
warn exposed settlers, guide wagon trains, or carry despatches between
outposts. And thus our rider, Jack Keith, who knew every foot of the
plains lying between the Republican and the Canadian Rivers, was one of
these thus suddenly requisitioned, merely because he chanced to be
discovered unemployed by the harassed commander of a cantonment just
without the environs of Carson City. Twenty minutes later he was riding
swiftly into the northwest, bearing important news to General Sheridan,
commander of the Department, who happened at that moment to be at Fort
Cairnes. To Keith this had been merely another page in a career of
adventure; for him to take his life in his hands had long ago become an
old story. He had quietly performed the special duty allotted him, watched
a squadron of troopers trot forth down the valley of the Republican,
received the hasty thanks of the peppery little general, and then, having
nothing better to do, traded his horse in at the government corral for a
fresh mount and started back again for Carson City. For the greater
portion of two nights and a day he had been in the saddle, but he was
accustomed to this, for he had driven more than one bunch of longhorns up
the Texas trail; and as he had slept three hours at Cairnes, and as his
nerves were like steel, the thought of danger gave him slight concern. He
was thoroughly tired, and it rested him to get out of the saddle, while
the freshness of the morning air was a tonic, the very breath of which
made him forgetful of fatigue.
After all, this was indeed the very sort of experience which appealed to
him, and always had--this life of peril in the open, under the stars and
the sky. He had constantly experienced it for so long now, eight years, as
to make it seem merely natural. While he ploughed steadily forward through
the shifting sand of the coulee, his thought drifted idly back over those
years, and sometimes he smiled, and occasionally frowned, as various
incidents returned to memory. It had been a rough life, yet one not
unusual to those of his generation. Born of excellent family in tidewater
Virginia, his father a successful planter, his mother had died while he
was still in early boyhood, and he had grown up cut off from all womanly
influence. He had barely attained his majority, a senior at William and
Mary's College, when the Civil War came; and one month after Virginia cast
in her lot with the South, he became a sergeant in a cavalry regiment
commanded by his father. He had enjoyed that life and won his spurs, yet
it had cost. There was much not over pleasant to remember, and those
strenuous years of almost ceaseless fighting, of long night marches, of
swift, merciless raiding, of lonely scouting within the enemy's lines, of
severe wounds, hardship, and suffering, had left their marks on both body
and soul. His father had fallen on the field at Antietam, and left him
utterly alone in the world, but he had fought on grimly to the end, until
the last flag of the Confederacy had been furled. By that time, upon the
collar of his tattered gray jacket appeared the tarnished insignia of a
captain. The quick tears dimmed his eyes even now as he recalled anew that
final parting following Appomattox, the battle-worn faces of his men, and
his own painful journey homeward, defeated, wounded, and penniless. It was
no home when he got there, only a heap of ashes and a few weed-grown
acres. No familiar face greeted him; not even a slave was left.
He had honestly endeavored to remain there, to face the future and work it
out alone; he persuaded himself to feel that this was his paramount duty
to the State, to the memory of the dead. But those very years of army life
made such a task impossible; the dull, dead monotony of routine, the
loneliness, the slowness of results, became intolerable. As it came to
thousands of his comrades, the call of the West came to him, and at last
he yielded, and drifted toward the frontier. The life there fascinated
him, drawing him deeper and deeper into its swirling vortex. He became
freighter, mail carrier, hunter, government scout, cowboy foreman. Once he
had drifted into the mountains, and took a chance in the mines, but the
wide plains called him back once more to their desert loneliness. What an
utter waste it all seemed, now that he looked back upon it. Eight years of
fighting, hardship, and rough living, and what had they brought him? The
reputation of a hard rider, a daring player at cards, a quick shot, a
scorner of danger, and a bad man to fool with--that was the whole of a
record hardly won. The man's eyes hardened, his lips set firmly, as this
truth came crushing home. A pretty life story surely, one to be proud of,
and with probably no better ending than an Indian bullet, or the flash of
a revolver in some barroom fight.
The narrow valley along which he was travelling suddenly changed its
direction, compelling him to climb the rise of the ridge. Slightly below
the summit he halted. In front extended the wide expanse of the Arkansas
valley, a scene of splendor under the golden rays of the sun, with vivid
contrast of colors, the gray of rocks, the yellow of sand, the brown of
distant hills, the green of vegetation, and the silver sheen of the stream
half hidden behind the fringe of cottonwoods lining its banks. This was a
sight Keith had often looked upon, but always with appreciation, and for
the moment his eyes swept across from bluff to bluff without thought
except for its wild beauty. Then he perceived something which instantly
startled him into attention--yonder, close beside the river, just beyond
that ragged bunch of cottonwoods, slender spirals of blue smoke were
visible. That would hardly be a camp of freighters at this hour of the
day, and besides, the Santa Fe trail along here ran close in against the
bluff, coming down to the river at the ford two miles further west. No
party of plainsmen would ever venture to build a fire in so exposed a
spot, and no small company would take the chances of the trail. But surely
that appeared to be the flap of a canvas wagon top a little to the right
of the smoke, yet all was so far away he could not be certain. He stared
in that direction a long while, shading his eyes with both hands, unable
to decide. There were three or four moving black dots higher up the river,
but so far away he could not distinguish whether men or animals. Only as
outlined against the yellow sand dunes could he tell they were advancing
westward toward the ford.
Decidedly puzzled by all this, yet determined to solve the mystery and
unwilling to remain hidden there until night, Keith led his horse along
the slant of the ridge, until he attained a sharp break through the bluff
leading down into the valley. It was a rugged gash, nearly impassable, but
a half hour of toil won them the lower prairie, the winding path
preventing the slightest view of what might be meanwhile transpiring
below. Once safely out in the valley the river could no longer be seen,
while barely a hundred yards away, winding along like a great serpent, ran
the deeply rutted trail to Santa Fe. In neither direction appeared any
sign of human life. As near as he could determine from those distant
cottonwoods outlined against the sky, for the smoke spirals were too thin
by then to be observed, the spot sought must be considerably to the right
of where he had emerged. With this idea in mind he advanced cautiously,
his every sense alert, searching anxiously for fresh signs of passage or
evidence of a wagon train having deserted the beaten track, and turned
south. The trail itself, dustless and packed hard, revealed nothing, but
some five hundred yards beyond the ravine he discovered what he sought--
here two wagons had turned sharply to the left, their wheels cutting
deeply enough into the prairie sod to show them heavily laden. With the
experience of the border he was able to determine that these wagons were
drawn by mules, two span to each, their small hoofs clearly defined on the
turf, and that they were being driven rapidly, on a sharp trot as they
turned, and then, a hundred feet further, at a slashing gallop. Just
outside their trail appeared the marks of a galloping horse. A few rods
farther along Keith came to a confused blur of pony tracks sweeping in
from the east, and the whole story of the chase was revealed as though he
had witnessed it with his own eyes. They must have been crazy, or else
impelled by some grave necessity, to venture along this trail in so small
a party. And they were travelling west--west! Keith drew a deep breath,
and swore to himself, "Of all the blame fools!"
He perceived the picture in all its grewsome details--the two mule-drawn
wagons moving slowly along the trail in the early morning; the band of
hostile Indians suddenly swooping out from some obscure hiding place in
the bluffs; the discovery of their presence; the desperate effort at
escape; the swerving from the open trail in vain hope of reaching the
river and finding protection underneath its banks; the frightened mules
galloping wildly, lashed into frenzy by the man on horseback; the pounding
of the ponies' hoofs, punctuated by the exultant yells of the pursuers.
Again he swore:
"Of all the blame fools!"
The Scene of Tragedy
Whatever might be the nature of the tragedy it would be over with long
before this, and those moving black spots away yonder to the west, that he
had discerned from the bluff, were undoubtedly the departing raiders.
There was nothing left for Keith to do except determine the fate of the
unfortunates, and give their bodies decent burial. That any had escaped,
or yet lived, was altogether unlikely, unless, perchance, women had been
in the party, in which case they would have been borne away prisoners.
Confident that no hostiles would be left behind to observe his movements,
Keith pressed steadily forward, leading his horse. He had thus traversed
fully half a mile before coming upon any evidence of a fight--here the
pursuers had apparently come up with the wagons, and circled out upon
either side. From their ponies' tracks there must have been a dozen in the
band. Perhaps a hundred yards further along lay two dead ponies. Keith
examined them closely--both had been ridden with saddles, the marks of the
cinches plainly visible. Evidently one of the wagon mules had also dropped
in the traces here, and had been dragged along by his mates. Just beyond
came a sudden depression in the prairie down which the wagons had plunged
so heavily as to break one of the axles; the wheel lay a few yards away,
and, somewhat to the right, there lay the wreck of the wagon itself, two
dead mules still in the traces, the vehicle stripped of contents and
charred by fire. A hundred feet farther along was the other wagon, its
tongue broken, the canvas top ripped open, while between the two were
scattered odds and ends of wearing apparel and provisions, with a pile of
boxes smoking grimly. The remaining mules were gone, and no semblance of
life remained anywhere. Keith dropped his reins over his horse's head,
and, with Winchester cocked and ready, advanced cautiously.
Death from violence had long since become almost a commonplace occurrence
to Keith, yet now he shrank for an instant as his eyes perceived the
figure of a man lying motionless across the broken wagon tongue. The
grizzled hair and beard were streaked with blood, the face almost
unrecognizable, while the hands yet grasped a bent and shattered rifle.
Evidently the man had died fighting, beaten down by overwhelming numbers
after expending his last shot. Then those fiends had scalped and left him
where he fell. Fifty feet beyond, shot in the back, lay a younger man,
doubled up in a heap, also scalped and dead. That was all; Keith scouted
over a wide circle, even scanning the stretch of gravel under the river
bank, before he could fully satisfy himself there were no others in the
party. It seemed impossible that these two travelling alone would have
ventured upon such a trip in the face of known Indian hostility. Yet they
must have done so, and once again his lips muttered:
"Of all the blame fools!"
Suddenly he halted, staring about over the prairie, obsessed by a new
thought, an aroused suspicion. There had appeared merely the hoof-prints
of the one horse alongside of the fleeing wagons when they first turned
out from the trail, and that horse had been newly shod. But there were two
dead ponies lying back yonder; neither shod, yet both had borne saddles.
More than this, they had been spurred, the blood marks still plainly
visible, and one of them was branded; he remembered it now, a star and
arrow. What could all this portend? Was it possible this attack was no
Indian affair after all? Was the disfiguring of bodies, the scalping,
merely done to make it appear the act of savages? Driven to investigation
by this suspicion, he passed again over the trampled ground, marking this
time every separate indentation, every faintest imprint of hoof or foot.
There was no impression of a moccasin anywhere; every mark remaining was
of booted feet. The inference was sufficiently plain--this had been the
deed of white men, not of red; foul murder, and not savage war.
The knowledge seemed to seer Keith's brain with fire, and he sprang to his
feet, hands clinched and eyes blazing. He could have believed this of
Indians, it was according to their nature, their method of warfare; but
the cowardliness of it, the atrocity of the act, as perpetrated by men of
his own race, instantly aroused within him a desire for vengeance. He
wanted to run the fellows down, to discover their identity. Without
thinking of personal danger, he ran forward on their trail, which led
directly westward, along the line of cottonwoods. These served to conceal
his own movements, yet for the moment, burning with passion, he was
utterly without caution, without slightest sense of peril. He must know
who was guilty of such a crime; he felt capable of killing them even as he
would venomous snakes. It was a perfectly plain trail to follow, for the
fugitives, apparently convinced of safety, and confident their cowardly
deed would be charged to Indian raiders, had made no particular effort at
concealment, but had ridden away at a gallop, their horses' hoofs digging
deeply into the soft turf. On this retreat they had followed closely along
the river bank, aiming for the ford, and almost before he realized it
Keith was himself at the water's edge where the trail abruptly ended,
staring vaguely across toward the opposite shore. Even as he stood there,
realizing the futility of further pursuit amid the maze of sand dunes
opposite, the sharp reports of two rifles reached him, spurts of smoke
rose from the farther bank, and a bullet chugged into the ground at his
feet, while another sang shrilly overhead.
These shots, although neither came sufficiently near to be alarming,
served to send Keith to cover. Cool-headed and alert now, his first mad
rage dissipated, he scanned the opposite bank cautiously, but could
nowhere discover any evidence of life. Little by little he comprehended
the situation, and decided upon his own action. The fugitives were aware
of his presence, and would prevent his crossing the stream, yet they were
not at all liable to return to this side and thus reveal their identity.
To attempt any further advance would be madness, but he felt perfectly
secure from molestation so long as he remained quietly on the north shore.
Those shots were merely a warning to keep back; the very fact that the men
firing kept concealed was proof positive that they simply wished to be
left alone. They were not afraid of what he knew now, only desirous of not
being seen. Confident as to this, he retreated openly, without making the
slightest effort to conceal his movements, until he had regained the scene
of murder. In evidence of the truth of his theory no further shots were
fired, and although he watched that opposite sand bank carefully, not the
slightest movement revealed the presence of others. That every motion he
made was being observed by keen eyes he had no doubt, but this knowledge
did not disconcert him, now that he felt convinced fear of revealment
would keep his watchers at a safe distance. Whoever they mignt be they
were evidently more anxious to escape discovery than he was fearful of
attack, and possessed no desire to take his life, unless it became
necessary to prevent recognition. They still had every reason to believe
their attack on the wagons would be credited to hostile Indians, and would
consider it far safer to remain concealed, and thus harbor this
supposition. They could not suspect that Keith had already stumbled upon
the truth, and was determined to verify it.
Secure in this conception of the situation, yet still keeping a wary eye
about to guard against any treachery, the plainsman, discovering a spade
in the nearest wagon, hastily dug a hole in the sand, wrapped the dead
bodies in blankets, and deposited them therein, piling above the mound the
charred remains of boxes as some slight protection against prowling
wolves. He searched the clothing of the men, but found little to reward
the effort, a few letters which were slipped into his pockets to be read
later, some ordinary trinkets hardly worth preserving except that they
might assist in identifying the victims, and, about the neck of the elder
man, a rather peculiar locket, containing a portrait painted on ivory.
Keith was a long time opening this, the spring being very ingeniously
concealed, but upon finally succeeding, he looked upon the features of a
woman of middle age, a strong mature face of marked refinement,
exceedingly attractive still, with smiling dark eyes, and a perfect wealth
of reddish brown hair. He held the locket open in his hands for several
minutes, wondering who she could be, and what possible connection she
could have held with the dead. Something about that face smiling up into
his own held peculiar fascination for him, gripping him with a strange
feeling of familiarity, touching some dim memory which failed to respond.
Surely he had never seen the original, for she was not one to be easily
forgotten, and yet eyes, hair, expression, combined to remind him of some
one whom he had seen but could not bring definitely to mind. There were no
names on the locket, no marks of identification of any kind, yet realizing
the sacredness of it, Keith slipped the fragile gold chain about his neck,
and securely hid the trinket beneath his shirt.
It was noon by this time, the sun high overhead, and his horse, with
dangling rein, still nibbling daintily at the short grass. There was no
reason for his lingering longer. He swept his gaze the length and breadth
of the desolate valley, and across the river over the sand hills. All
alike appeared deserted, not a moving thing being visible between the
bluffs and the stream. Still he had the unpleasant feeling of being
watched, and it made him restless and eager to be away. The earlier gust
of anger, the spirit of revenge, had left him, but it had merely changed
into a dogged resolution to discover the perpetrators of this outrage and
bring them to justice for the crime. The face in the locket seemed to ask
it of him, and his nature urged response. But he could hope to accomplish
nothing more here, and the plainsman swung himself into the saddle. He
turned his horse's head eastward, and rode away. From the deeply rutted
trail he looked back to where the fire still smoked in the midst of that
The Santa Fe trail was far too exposed to be safely travelled alone and in
broad daylight, but Keith considered it better to put sufficient space
between himself and those whom he felt confident were still watching his
movements from across the river. How much they might already suspicion his
discoveries he possessed no means of knowing, yet, conscious of their own
guilt, they might easily feel safer if he were also put out of the way. He
had no anticipation of open attack, but must guard against treachery. As
he rode, his eyes never left those far-away sand dunes, although he
perceived no movement, no black dot even which he could conceive to be a
possible enemy. Now that he possessed ample time for thought, the
situation became more puzzling. This tragedy which he had accidentally
stumbled upon must have had a cause other than blind chance. It was the
culmination of a plot, with some reason behind more important than
ordinary robbery. Apparently the wagons contained nothing of value, merely
the clothing, provisions, and ordinary utensils of an emigrant party. Nor
had the victims' pockets been carefully searched. Only the mules had been
taken by the raiders, and they would be small booty for such a crime.
The trail, continually skirting the high bluff and bearing farther away
from the river, turned sharply into a narrow ravine. There was a
considerable break in the rocky barrier here, leading back for perhaps a
hundred yards, and the plainsman turned his horse that way, dismounting
when out of sight among the bowlders. He could rest here until night with
little danger of discovery. He lay down on the rocks, pillowing his head
on the saddle, but his brain was too active to permit sleeping. Finally he
drew the letters from out his pocket, and began examining them. They
yielded very little information, those taken from the older man having no
envelopes to show to whom they had been addressed. The single document
found in the pocket of the other was a memorandum of account at the
Pioneer Store at Topeka, charged to John Sibley, and marked paid. This
then must have been the younger man's name, as the letters to the other
began occasionally "Dear Will." They were missives such as a wife might
write to a husband long absent, yet upon a mission of deep interest to
both. Keith could not fully determine what this mission might be, as the
persons evidently understood each other so thoroughly that mere allusion
took the place of detail. Twice the name Phyllis was mentioned, and once a
"Fred" was also referred to, but in neither instance clearly enough to
reveal the relationship, although the latter appeared to be pleaded for.
Certain references caused the belief that these letters had been mailed
from some small Missouri town, but no name was mentioned. They were
invariably signed "Mary." The only other paper Keith discovered was a
brief itinerary of the Santa Fe trail extending as far west as the Raton
Mountains, giving the usual camping spots and places where water was
accessible. He slipped the papers back into his pocket with a distinct
feeling of disappointment, and lay back staring up at the little strip of
blue sky. The silence was profound, even his horse standing motionless,
and finally he fell asleep.
The sun had disappeared, and even the gray of twilight was fading out of
the sky, when Keith returned again to consciousness, aroused by his horse
rolling on the soft turf. He awoke thoroughly refreshed, and eager to get
away on his long night's ride. A cold lunch, hastily eaten, for a fire
would have been dangerous, and he saddled up and was off, trotting out of
the narrow ravine and into the broad trail, which could be followed
without difficulty under the dull gleam of the stars. Horse and rider were
soon at their best, the animal swinging unurged into the long, easy lope
of prairie travel, the fresh air fanning the man's face as he leaned
forward. Once they halted to drink from a narrow stream, and then pushed
on, hour after hour, through the deserted night. Keith had little fear of
Indian raiders in that darkness, and every stride of his horse brought him
closer to the settlements and further removed from danger. Yet eyes and
ears were alert to every shadow and sound. Once, it must have been after
midnight, he drew his pony sharply back into a rock shadow at the noise of
something approaching from the east. The stage to Santa Fe rattled past,
the four mules trotting swiftly, a squad of troopers riding hard behind.
It was merely a lumping shadow sweeping swiftly past; he could perceive
the dim outlines of driver and guard, the soldiers swaying in their
saddles, heard the pounding of hoofs, the creak of axles, and then the
apparition disappeared into the black void. He had not called out--what
was the use? Those people would never pause to hunt down prairie outlaws,
and their guard was sufficient to prevent attack. They acknowledged but
one duty--to get the mail through on time.
The dust of their passing still in the air, Keith rode on, the noise dying
away in his rear. As the hours passed, his horse wearied and had to be
spurred into the swifter stride, but the man seemed tireless. The sun was
an hour high when they climbed the long hill, and loped into Carson City.
The cantonment was to the right, but Keith, having no report to make, rode
directly ahead down the one long street to a livery corral, leaving his
horse there, and sought the nearest restaurant.
Exhausted by a night of high play and deep drinking the border town was
sleeping off its debauch, saloons and gambling dens silent, the streets
almost deserted. To Keith, whose former acquaintance with the place had
been entirely after nightfall, the view of it now was almost a shock--the
miserable shacks, the gaudy saloon fronts, the littered streets, the
dingy, unpainted hotel, the dirty flap of canvas, the unoccupied road, the
dull prairie sweeping away to the horizon, all composed a hideous picture
beneath the sun glare. He could scarcely find a man to attend his horse,
and at the restaurant a drowsy Chinaman had to be shaken awake, and
frightened into serving him. He sat down to the miserable meal oppressed
with disgust--never before had his life seemed so mean, useless, utterly
He possessed the appetite of the open, of the normal man in perfect
physical health, and he ate heartily his eyes wandering out of the open
window down the long, dismal street. A drunken man lay in front of the
"Red Light" Saloon sleeping undisturbed; two cur dogs were snarling at
each other just beyond over a bone; a movers' wagon was slowly coming in
across the open through a cloud of yellow dust. That was all within the
radius of vision. For the first time in years the East called him--the old
life of cleanliness and respectability. He swore to himself as he tossed
the Chinaman pay for his breakfast, and strode out onto the steps. Two men
were coming up the street together from the opposite direction--one lean,
dark-skinned, with black goatee, the other heavily set with closely
trimmed gray beard. Keith knew the latter, and waited, leaning against the
door, one hand on his hip.
"Hullo, Bob," he said genially; "they must have routed you out pretty
"They shore did, Jack," was the response. He came up the steps somewhat
heavily, his companion stopping below. "The boys raise hell all night, an'
then come ter me ter straighten it out in the mawnin'. When did ye git
"An hour ago; had to wake the 'chink' up to get any chuck. Town looks
"Tain't over lively at this time o' day," permitting his blue eyes to
wander up the silent street, but instantly bringing them back to Keith's
face, "but I reckon it'll wake up later on."
He stood squarely on both feet, and one hand rested on the butt of a
revolver. Keith noticed this, wondering vaguely.
"I reckon yer know, Jack, as how I ginerally git what I goes after," said
the slow, drawling voice, "an' that I draw 'bout as quick as any o' the
boys. They tell me yo're a gun-fighter, but it won't do ye no good ter
make a play yere, fer one o' us is sure to git yer--do yer sabe?"
"Get me?" Keith's voice and face expressed astonishment, but not a muscle
of his body moved. "What do you mean, Bob--are you fellows after me?"
"Sure thing; got the warrant here," and he tapped the breast of his shirt
with his left hand.
The color mounted into the cheeks of the other, his lips grew set and
white, and his gray eyes darkened.
"Let it all out, Marshal," he said sternly, "you've got me roped and tied.
Now what's the charge?"
Neither man moved, but the one below swung about so as to face them, one
hand thrust out of sight beneath the tail of his long coat.
"Make him throw up his hands, Bob," he said sharply.
"Oh, I reckon thar ain't goin' ter be no trouble," returned the marshal
genially, yet with no relaxation of attention. "Keith knows me, an'
expects a fair deal. Still, maybe I better ask yer to unhitch yer belt,
A moment Keith seemed to hesitate, plainly puzzled by the situation and
endeavoring to see some way of escape; then his lips smiled, and he
silently unhooked the belt, handing it over.
"Sure, I know you're square, Hicks," he said, coolly. "And now I've
unlimbered, kindly inform me what this is all about."
"I reckon yer don't know."
"No more than an unborn babe. I have been here but an hour."
"That's it: if yer had been longer thar wouldn't be no trouble. Yo're
wanted for killin' a couple o' men out at Cimmaron Crossin' early
Keith stared at him too completely astounded for the instant to even
speak. Then he gasped.
"For God's sake, Hicks, do you believe that?"
"I'm damned if I know," returned the marshal, doubtfully. "Don't seem like
ye'd do it, but the evidence is straight 'nough, an' thar ain't nothin'
fer me ter do but take ye in. I ain't no jedge an' jury."
"No, but you ought to have ordinary sense, an' you've known me for three
"Sure I have, Jack, but if yer've gone wrong, you won't be the first good
man I've seen do it. Anyhow, the evidence is dead agin you, an' I'd arrest
my own grand-dad if they give me a warrant agin him."
"What evidence is there?"
"Five men swear they saw ye haulin' the bodies about, and lootin' the
Then Keith understood, his heart beating rapidly, his teeth clenched to
keep back an outburst of passion. So that was their game, was it?--some
act of his had awakened the cowardly suspicions of those watching him
across the river. They were afraid that he knew them as white men. And
they had found a way to safely muzzle him. They must have ridden hard over
those sand dunes to have reached Carson City and sworn out this warrant.
It was a good trick, likely enough to hang him, if the fellows only stuck
to their story. All this flashed through his brain, yet somehow he could
not clearly comprehend the full meaning, his mind confused and dazed by
this sudden realization of danger. His eyes wandered from the steady gaze
of the marshal, who had half drawn his gun fearing resistance, to the man
at the bottom of the steps. Suddenly it dawned upon him where he had seen
that dark-skinned face, with the black goatee, before--at the faro table
of the "Red Light." He gripped his hands together, instantly connecting
that sneering, sinister face with the plot.
"Who swore out that warrant?"
"I did, if you need to know," a sarcastic smile revealing a gleam of white
teeth, "on the affidavit of others, friends of mine."
"Who are you?"
"I'm mostly called 'Black Bart.'"
That was it; he had the name now--"Black Bart." He straightened up so
quickly, his eyes blazing, that the marshal jerked his gun clear.
"See here, Jack," shortly, "are yer goin' to raise a row, or come along
As though the words had aroused him from a bad dream, Keith turned to
front the stern, bearded face.
"There'll be no row, Bob," he said, quietly. "I'll go with you."
An Old Acquaintance
The Carson City lock-up was an improvised affair, although a decidedly
popular resort. It was originally a two-room cabin with gable to the
street, the front apartment at one time a low groggery, the keeper
sleeping in the rear room. Whether sudden death, or financial reverses,
had been the cause, the community had in some manner become possessed of
the property, and had at once dedicated it to the commonweal. For the
purpose thus selected it was rather well adapted, being strongly built,
easily guarded, and on the outskirts of the town. With iron grating over
the windows, the back door heavily spiked, and the front secured by iron
bars, any prisoner once locked within could probably be found when wanted.
On the occasion of Keith's arrival, the portion abutting upon the street
was occupied by a rather miscellaneous assembly--the drunk and disorderly
element conspicuous--who were awaiting their several calls to appear
before a local justice and make answer for various misdeeds. Some were
pacing the floor, others sat moodily on benches ranged against the wall,
while a few were still peacefully slumbering upon the floor. It was a
frowsy, disreputable crowd, evincing but mild curiosity at the arrival of
a new prisoner. Keith had barely time to glance about, recognizing no
familiarity of face amid the mass peering at him, as he was hustled
briskly forward and thrust into the rear room, the heavy door closing
behind him with the snap of a spring lock.
He was alone, with only the faintest murmur of voices coming to him
through the thick partition. It was a room some twelve feet square, open
to the roof, with bare walls, and containing no furniture except a rude
bench. Still dazed by the suddenness of his arrest, he sank down upon the
seat, leaned his head on his hands, and endeavored to think. It was
difficult to get the facts marshalled into any order or to comprehend
clearly the situation, yet little by little his brain grasped the main
details, and he awoke to a full realization of his condition, of the
forces he must war against. The actual murderers of those two men on the
trail had had their suspicions aroused by his actions; they believed he
guessed something of their foul deed, and had determined to clear
themselves by charging the crime directly against him. It was a shrewd
trick, and if they only stuck to their story, ought to succeed. He had no
evidence, other than his own word, and the marshal had already taken from
his pockets the papers belonging to the slain man. He had not found the
locket hidden under his shirt, yet a more thorough search would doubtless
reveal that also.
Even should the case come to trial, how would it be possible for him to
establish innocence, and--_would it ever come to trial?_ Keith knew
the character of the frontier, and of Carson City. The inclination of its
citizens in such cases was to act first, and reflect later. The law had
but slender hold, being respected only when backed by the strong hand, and
primitive instincts were always in the ascendency, requiring merely a
leader to break forth into open violence. And in this case would there be
any lack of leadership? Like a flash his mind reverted to "Black Bart."
There was the man capable of inciting a mob. If, for some unknown reason,
he had sufficient interest to swear out the warrant and assist in the
arrest, he would have equal cause to serve those fellows behind him in
other ways. Naturally, they would dread a trial, with its possibility of
exposure, and eagerly grasp any opportunity for wiping the slate clean.
Their real security from discovery undoubtedly lay in his death, and with
the "Red Light" crowd behind them they would experience no trouble in
getting a following desperate enough for any purpose.
The longer Keith thought the less he doubted the result. It was not then a
problem of defence, but of escape, for he believed now that no opportunity
to defend himself would ever be allowed. The arrest was merely part of the
plot intended to leave him helpless in the hands of the mob. In this Hicks
was in no way blamable--he had merely performed his sworn duty, and would
still die, if need be, in defence of his prisoner. He was no tool, but
only an instrument they had found means of using.
Keith was essentially a man of action, a fighter by instinct, and so long
accustomed to danger that the excitement of it merely put new fire into
his veins. Now that he understood exactly what threatened, all numbing
feeling of hesitancy and doubt vanished, and he became instantly alive. He
would not lie there in that hole waiting for the formation of a mob; nor
would he trust in the ability of the marshal to defend him.
He had some friends without--not many, for he was but an occasional
visitor at Carson--who would rally to Hicks's assistance, but there would
not be enough on the side of law and order to overcome the "Red Light"
outfit, if once they scented blood. If he was to be saved from their
clutches, he must save himself; if his innocence was ever established it
would be by his own exertions--and he could accomplish this only out
yonder, free under the arch of sky.
He lifted his head, every nerve tingling with desperate determination. The
low growl of voices was audible through the partition, but there was no
other sound. Carson City was still resting, and there would be no crowd
nor excitement until much later. Not until nightfall would any attack be
attempted; he had six or eight hours yet in which to perfect his plans. He
ran his eyes about the room searching for some spot of weakness. It was
dark back of the bench, and he turned in that direction. Leaning over, he
looked down on the figure of a man curled up, sound asleep on the floor.
The fellow's limbs twitched as if in a dream, otherwise he might have
deemed him dead, as his face was buried in his arms. A moment Keith
hesitated; then he reached down and shook the sleeper, until he aroused
sufficiently to look up. It was the face of a coal-black negro. An instant
the fellow stared at the man towering over him, his thick lips parted, his
eyes full of sudden terror. Then he sat up, with hands held before him as
though warding off a blow.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake," he managed to articulate finally, "am dis sho' yo',
Keith, to whom all colored people were much alike, laughed at the
expression on the negro's face.
"I reckon yer guessed the name, all right, boy. Were you the cook of the
"No, sah, I nebber cooked no di'onds. I'se ol' Neb, sah."
"Yes, sah, I'se de boy dat libbed wid ol' Missus Caton durin' de wah. I
ain't seen yo', Massa Jack, sence de day we buried yo' daddy, ol' Massa
Keith. But I knowed yo' de berry minute I woke up. Sho', yo' 'members Neb,
It came to Keith now in sudden rush of memory--the drizzling rain in the
little cemetery, the few neighbors standing about, a narrow fringe of
slaves back of them, the lowering of the coffin, and the hollow sound of
earth falling on the box; and Neb, his Aunt Caton's house servant, a black
imp of good humor, who begged so hard to be taken back with him to the
war. Why, the boy had held his stirrup the next morning when he rode away.
The sudden rush of recollection seemed to bridge the years, and that black
face became familiar, a memory of home.
"Of course, I remember, Neb," he exclaimed, eagerly, "but that's all years
ago and I never expected to see you again. What brought you West and got
you into this hole?"
The negro hitched up onto the bench, the whites of his eyes conspicuous as
he stared uneasily about--he had a short, squatty figure, with excessively
broad shoulders, and a face of intense good humor.
"I reck'n dat am consider'ble ob a story, Massa Jack, de circumlocution ob
which would take a heap ob time tellin'," he began soberly. "But it
happened 'bout dis away. When de Yankees come snoopin' long de East Sho'--
I reck'n maybe it des a yeah after dat time when we done buried de ol'
Co'nel--dey burned Missus Caton's house clah to de groun'; de ol' Missus
was in Richmond den, an' de few niggers left jest natchally took to de
woods. I went into Richmond huntin' de ol' Missus, but, Lawd, Massa Jack,
I nebber foun' nuthin' ob her in dat crowd. Den an' officer man done got
me, an' put me diggin' in de trenches. Ef dat's what wah am, I sho' don'
want no mo' wah. Den after dat I jest natchally drifted. I reckon I libbed
'bout eberywhar yo' ebber heard ob, fo' dar want no use ob me goin' back
to de East Sho'. Somebody said dat de West am de right place fo' a nigger,
an' so I done headed west."
He dropped his face in his black hands, and was silent for some minutes,
but Keith said nothing, and finally the thick voice continued:
"I tell yo', Massa Jack, it was mighty lonely fo' Neb dem days. I didn't
know whar any ob yo' all was, an' it wan't no fun fo' dis nigger bein'
free dat away. I got out ter Independence, Missouri, an' was roustaboutin'
on de ribber, when a coupple ob men come along what wanted a cook to
trabbel wid 'em. I took de job, an' dat's what fetched me here ter Carson
"But what caused your arrest?"
"A conjunction ob circumstances, Massa Jack; yes, sah, a conjunction ob
circumstances. I got playin' pokah ober in dat 'Red Light,' an' I was
doin' fine. I reckon I'd cleaned up mo'n a hundred dollars when I got
sleepy, an' started fo' camp. I'd most got dar w'en a bunch ob low white
trash jumped me. It made me mad, it did fo' a fact, an' I reckon I carved
some ob 'em up befo' I got away. Ennyhow, de marshal come down, took me
out ob de tent, an' fetched me here, an' I ben here ebber sence. I wan't
goin' ter let no low down white trash git all dat money."
"What became of the men you were working for?"
"I reckon dey went on, sah. Dey had 'portent business, an' wouldn't likely
wait 'roun' here jest ter help a nigger. Ain't ennybody ben here ter see
me, no-how, an' I 'spects I'se eradicated from dey mem'ry--I 'spects I
The One Way
Keith said nothing for some moments, staring up at the light stealing in
through the window grating, his mind once again active. The eyes of the
black man had the patient look of a dog as they watched; evidently he had
cast aside all responsibility, now that this other had come. Finally Keith
"We are in much the same position, Neb, and the fate of one is liable to
be the fate of both. This is my story"--and briefly as possible, he ran
over the circumstances which had brought him there, putting the situation
clear enough for the negro's understanding, without wasting any time upon
detail. Neb followed his recital with bulging eyes, and an occasional
exclamation. At the end he burst forth:
"Yo' say dar was two ob dem white men murdered--one an ol' man wid a gray
beard, an' de odder 'bout thirty? Am dat it, Massa Jack, an' dey had fo'
span ob mules, an' a runnin' hoss?"
"An' how far out was it?"
"About sixty miles."
"Oh, de good Lawdl" and the negro threw up his hands dramatically. "Dat
sutt'nly am my outfit! Dat am Massa Waite an' John Sibley."
"You mean the same men with whom you came here from Independence?"
Neb nodded, overcome by the discovery.
"But what caused them to run such a risk?" Keith insisted. "Didn't they
know the Indians were on the war path?"
"Sho'; I heard 'em talkin' 'bout dat, but Massa Waite was jest boun' foh
to git movin'. He didn't 'pear to be 'fraid ob no Injuns; reck'ned dey'd
nebber stop him, dat he knowed ebbery chief on de plains. I reck'n dat he
"But what was he so anxious to get away for?"
"I dunno, Massa, I done heerd 'em talk some 'bout dey plans, an' 'bout
some gal dey wanted ter fin', but I didn't git no right sense to it. De
Gin'ral, he was a mighty still man."
"The General? Whom do you mean? Not Waite?"
"John Sibley done called him dat."
Then Keith remembered--just a dim, misty thread at first, changing slowly
into a clear recollection. He was riding with despatches from Longstreet
to Stonewall Jackson, and had been shot through the side. The first of
Jackson's troops he reached was a brigade of North Carolinians, commanded
by General Waite--General Willis Waite. He had fallen from his horse at
the outposts, was brought helpless to the General's tent, and another sent
on with the papers. And Mrs. Waite had dressed and bandaged his wound.
That was where he had seen that woman's face before, with its haunting
familiarity. He drew the locket from beneath his shirt, and gazed at the
countenance revealed, with new intelligence. There could be no doubt--it
was the face of her who had cared for him so tenderly in that tent at
Manassas before the fever came and he had lost consciousness. And that,
then, was Willis Waite lying in that shallow grave near the Cimmaron
Crossing, and for whose death he had been arrested. 'T was a strange
world, and a small one. What a miserable ending to a life like his--a
division commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a Lieutenant-Governor
of his State. What strange combination of circumstances could ever have
brought such a man to this place, and sent him forth across those Indian-
scouted plains? Surely nothing ordinary. And why should those border
desperadoes have followed, through sixty miles of desolation, to trike him
down? It was not robbery, at least in the ordinary sense. What then? And
how was "Black Bart" involved? Why should he be sufficiently interested to
swear out a warrant, and then assist in his arrest? There must be
something to all this not apparent upon the surface--some object, some
purpose shrouded in mystery. No mere quarrel, no ordinary feud, no
accident of meeting, no theory of commonplace robbery, would account for
the deed, or for the desperate efforts now being made to conceal it.
Some way, these questions, thus surging upon him, became a call to live,
to fight, to unravel their mystery. The memory of that sweet-faced woman
who had bent above him when the fever began its mastery, appealed to him
now with the opportunity of service. He might be able to clear this, bring
to her the truth, save her from despair, and hand over to justice the
murderers of her husband. It was up to him alone to accomplish this--no
one else knew what he knew, suspected what he suspected. And there was but
one way--through escape. To remain there in weak surrender to fate could
have but one ending, and that swift and sudden. He had no doubt as to
"Black Bart's" purpose, or of his ability to use the "Red Light" outfit as
desired. The whole plan was clearly evident, and there would be no delay
in execution--all they were waiting for was night, and a lax guard. He
glanced about at the walls of the room, his eyes grown hard, his teeth
"Neb," he said shortly, "I guess that was your outfit all right, but they
were not killed by Indians. They were run down by a gang from this town--
the same fellows who have put you and me in here. I don't know what they
were after--that's to be found out later,--but the fight you put up at the
camp spoiled their game for once, and led to your arrest. They failed to
get what was wanted in Carson, and so they trailed the party to the
Cimmaron Crossing. Then I got on their track, and fearing the result,
they've landed me also. Now they 'll get rid of us both as best they can.
These fellows won't want any trial--that would be liable to give the whole
trick away--but they have got to put us where we won't talk. There is an
easy way to do this, and that is by a lynching bee. Do you get my drift,
The whites of the negro's eyes were very much in evidence, his hands
gripping at the bench on which he sat.
"Fo' de Lawd, yes, Massa Jack, I sho' does. I corroborates de whole
"Then you are willing to take a chance with me?"
"Willin'! Why, Massa Jack, I'se overjoyed; I ain't gwine leave yer no mo'.
I'se sho' gwine ter be yo' nigger. What yo' gwine ter do?"
Keith ran his eyes over the walls, carefully noting every peculiarity.
"We'll remain here quietly just as long as it is daylight, Neb," he
replied finally, "but we'll try every board and every log to discover some
way out. Just the moment it grows dark enough to slip away without being
seen we've got to hit the prairie. Once south of the Arkansas we're safe,
but not until then. Have you made any effort to get out?"
The negro came over to him, and bent down.
"I was layin' on a board what I'd worked loose at one end," he whispered
hoarsely, "back ob de bench, but I couldn't jerk it out wid'out somethin'
ter pry it up wid."
"Where is it?"
"Right yere, Massa Jack."
It was a heavy twelve-inch plank, part of the flooring, and the second
from the side-wall. Keith managed to get a grip next to the black fingers,
and the two pressed it up far enough for the white man to run one arm
through the opening up to his shoulder and grope about below.
"There's a two-foot space there," he reported, as they let the board
settle silently down into position. "The back part of this building must
be set up on piles. I reckon we could pry that plank up with the bench,
Neb, but it's liable to make considerable racket. Let's hunt about first
for some other weak spot."
They crept across the floor, testing each separate board, but without
discovering a place where they could exert a leverage. The thick planks
were tightly spiked down. Nor did the walls offer any better
encouragement. Keith lifted himself to the grated window, getting a
glimpse of the world without, but finding the iron immovable, the screws
solidly imbedded in the outside wood. He dropped to the floor, feeling
baffled and discouraged.
"It will have to be the plank back of the bench, Neb," he announced
briefly, wiping the perspiration from his face. "Get down there, and work
it as loose as you can without making any noise, while I keep my ear to
the door and listen for any interruption."
They took turns at this labor, discovering a loose nail which gave an
opening purchase at the crack, thus enabling the insertion of a small
wooden block, and insuring space for a good finger grip when the right
time came. A sleepy Mexican brought in their dinner, and set it down on
the bench without a word, but on his return with supper, the marshal
accompanied him, and remained while they ate, talking to Keith, and
staring about the room. Fortunately, the single window was to the west,
and the last rays of the sun struck the opposite wall, leaving the space
behind the bench in deep shadow. Whatever might be the plans of "Black
Bart" and his cronies, Keith was soon convinced they were unknown to
Hicks, who had evidently been deceived into thinking that this last arrest
had created no excitement.
"That's why we picked yer up so early," he explained, genially. "Bart said
if we got to yer afore the boys woke up they'd never hear nuthin' 'bout
it, an' so thar wouldn't be no row. He didn't even think thar'd be enny
need o' keepin' a special guard ter-night, but I reckon I won't take no
such chance as that, an' I'll have a couple o' deputies prowlin' 'round
fer luck. When Carson does wake up, she's hell."
He left them tobacco and pipes, and went away evidently convinced that he
had performed his full duty. The two prisoners, puffing smoke-rings into
the air, heard the heavy clang of the iron bar falling into place across
the door, and sat looking into one another's faces through the deepening
twilight. In the mind of both blaik and white reposed the same thought.
The negro was first to break the silence.
"'Pears ter me, Massa Jack, like dis yere Bart pusson am mighty anxious
ter hab no suspicions raised."
"Anybody but Hicks would see that," acknowledged the other, the rings of
smoke circling his head, "but he hasn't any brains. It was pure nerve that
got him the job. Well, this is one time that 'Bart pusson' is going to
find an empty coop. We'll get out, Neb, just as soon as it gets dark
enough. Hicks isn't likely to put on his extra guard for an hour yet, and
the 'Red Light' bunch won't be fit for business much before midnight. By
that time we'll be in the sand hills, heading south, able to give them a
run for their money--we'll have horses, too, if we can find them."
The negro's eyes shone white.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, Massa," he protested, "dat'd sho' be a hangin' job if
ebber dey cotched us."
Keith laughed, knocking out the ashes from his pipe.
"With an hour's start that will be the least of my troubles," he said,
It was dark enough for their purpose in half an hour, the only gleam of
remaining color being the red glow of the negro's pipe, even the openings
in the iron grating being blotted from sight. Keith, staring in that
direction, failed to perceive any distant glimmer of star, and decided the
night must be cloudy, and that time for action had come. Guided by Neb's
pipe bowl, he touched the boy on the shoulder.
"Knock out your ashes, and shuffle about lively with your feet, while I
pry up the board."
In spite of his slenderness, Keith possessed unusual strength, yet no
exertion on his part served to start the loosened plank sufficiently for
their purpose. Ripping a strip from the bench he managed to pry the hole
somewhat larger, arranging the bench itself so as to afford the necessary
leverage, but even then his entire weight failed to either start the
spikes, or crack the plank. Some altercation began in the other room, the
sound of angry voices and shuffling feet being plainly audible. It was
clear to Keith that they must take the chance of a noise, and no better
time than this could be chosen.
"Here, Neb, take hold with me, and bear down--put your whole weight on it,
The two flung themselves upon the end of the bench leaping up and down so
as to add weight to power. Something had to give, either the stout wood of
their improvised lever or else the holding of the plank. For an instant it
seemed likely to be the former; then, with a shrill screech, the long
spikes yielded and the board suddenly gave. With shoulders inserted
beneath, the two men heaved it still higher, ramming the bench below so as
to leave the opening clear. This was now sufficiently ample for the
passage of a man's body, and Keith, lowering himself, discovered the earth
to be fully four feet below. The negro instantly joined him, and they
began creeping about in the darkness, seeking some way out. A rudely laid
foundation of limestone alone obstructed their path to the open air. This
had been laid in mortar, but of inferior quality, so that little
difficulty was experienced in detaching sufficient to obtain hand hold.
Working silently, not knowing what watchers might be already stationed
without, they succeeded in loosening enough of the rock to allow them to
crawl through, lying breathless in the open. Accustomed as they were to
the darkness, they could yet see little. They were upon the opposite side
from the town, with no gleam of lights visible, prairie and sky blending
together into spectral dimness, with no sound audible but the continued
quarrel in the front room of the jail. Keith crept along to the end of the
building from where he could perceive the lights of the town twinkling
dimly through the intense blackness. Evidently the regular evening
saturnalia had not yet begun, although there was already semblance of life
about the numerous saloons, and an occasional shout punctuated the
stillness. A dog howled in the distance, and the pounding of swift hoofs
along the trail told of fresh arrivals. An hour later and the single
street of Carson City would be alive with humanity, eager for any
excitement, ready for any wild orgy, if only once turned loose. That it
would be turned loose, and also directed, the man lying on his face in the
grass felt fully assured. He smiled grimly, wishing he might behold "Black
Bart's" face when he should discover the flight of his intended victims.
But there was no time to lose; every moment gained, added to their chance
"Are those horses tied there by the blacksmith's shop?" he asked,
The negro stared in the direction indicated, confused by the shadows
thrown by the dim lights.
"I reck'n dey am, Massa Jack; I done make out fo'."
"Then two of them must belong to us; come on, boy."
He ran forward, crouching behind every chance cover, and keeping well back
behind the line of shacks. A slight depression in the prairie helped
conceal their movements, and neither spoke until they were crouching
together beside the wall of the shop. Then Neb, teeth chattering, managed
to blurt forth:
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, yer don't actually mean ter steal dem hosses?"
Keith glanced about at the other's dim, black shadow.
"Sure not; just borrow 'em."
"But dat's a hangin' job in dis yere country, Massa Jack."
"Sure it is if they catch us. But we'd be strung up anyway, and we can't
be hung twice. Besides there is a chance for us with the ponies, and none
at all without. An hour's start in the saddle, Neb, and this bunch back
here will never even find our trail; I pledge you that. Come, boy, stay
close with me."
It was the quiet, confident voice of assured command, of one satisfied
with his plans, and the obedient negro, breathing hard, never dreamed of
opposition; all instincts of slavery held him to the dominion of this
white master. Keith leaned forward, staring at the string of deserted
ponies tied to the rail. Success depended on his choice, and he could
judge very little in that darkness. Men were straggling in along the
street to their right, on foot and horseback, and the saloon on the corner
was being well patronized. A glow of light streamed forth from its
windows, and there was the sound of many voices. But this narrow alley was
deserted, and black. The fugitive stepped boldly forward, afraid that
otherwise he might startle the ponies and thus create an alarm. Guided by
a horseman's instinct he swiftly ran his hands over the animals, and made
"Here, Neb, take this fellow; lead him quietly down the bank," and he
thrust the loosened rein into the black's hand.
An instant later he had chosen his own mount, and was silently moving in
the same direction, although the night there was so black that the
obedient negro had already entirely vanished. The slope of the land not
only helped cover their movements, but also rendered it easy for them to
find one another. Fully a hundred yards westward they met, where a gully
led directly down toward the river. There was no longer need for remaining
on foot, as they were a sufficient distance away from the little town to
feel no fear of being discovered, unless by some drunken straggler. At
Keith's command the negro climbed into his saddle. Both ponies were
restive, but not vicious, and after a plunge or two, to test their new
masters, came easily under control. Keith led the way, moving straight
down the gully, which gradually deepened, burying them in its black heart,
until it finally debouched onto the river sands. The riotous noises of the
drunken town died slowly away behind, the night silent and dark. The two
riders could scarcely distinguish one another as they drew rein at the
edge of the water. To the southward there gleamed a cluster of lights,
marking the position of the camp of regulars. Keith drove his horse deeper
into the stream, and headed northward, the negro following like a shadow.
There was a ford directly opposite the cantonment, and another, more
dangerous, and known to only a few, three miles farther up stream. Keeping
well within the water's edge, so as to thus completely obscure their
trail, yet not daring to venture deep for fear of striking quicksand, the
plainsman sent his pony struggling forward, until the dim outline of the
bank at his right rendered him confident that they had attained the proper
point for crossing. He had been that way only once before, and realized
the danger of attempting passage in such darkness, but urgent need drove
"Follow me just as close as you can, boy," he said sternly, "and keep both
your feet out of the stirrups. If your horse goes down hang to is tail,
and let him swim out."
There was little enough to guide by, merely a single faint star peering
out from a rift of the clouds, but Keith's remembrance was that the ford
led straight out to the centre of the stream, and then veered slightly
toward the right. He knew the sand ridge was only used by horsemen, not
being wide enough for the safe passage of wagons, but the depth of the
water on either side was entirely problematical. He was taking a big
chance, yet dare not wait for daylight. Summoning all his nerve and
alertness, he urged his horse slowly forward, the intelligent animal
seemingly comprehending the situation, and feeling carefully for footing.
The actions of the animal gave the rider greater confidence, and he
loosened his grip on the rein, leaving the pony's instinct to control. The
latter fairly crept forward, testing the sand before resting any weight
upon the hoof, the negro's mount following closely. The water was
unusually high, and as they advanced it bore down against them in
considerable volume; then, as they veered to the right, they were
compelled to push directly against its weight in struggling toward shore.
The men could see nothing but this solid sheet of water rushing down
toward them from out the black void, and then vanishing below. Once
Keith's horse half fell, plunging nose under, yet gaining foothold again
before the rider had deserted his saddle. A dim blackness ahead already
revealed the nearness of the southern bank, when Neb's pony went down
suddenly, swept fairly off its legs by some fierce eddy in the stream.
Keith heard the negro's guttural cry, and caught a glimpse of him as the
two were sent whirling down. The coiled rope of the lariat, grasped in his
right hand, was hurled forth like a shot, but came back empty. Not another
sound reached him; his own horse went steadily on, feeling his way, until
he was nose against the bank, with water merely rippling about his ankles.
Keith driving feet again into the stirrups headed him down stream, wading
close in toward the shore, leaning forward over the pommel striving to see
through the gloom.
He had no doubt about Neb's pony making land, unless struck by some
driftwood, or borne to the centre of the stream by the shifting force of
the current. But if Neb had failed to retain his grip he might have been
sucked under by the surge of waters. A hundred yards below he found them,
dripping and weak from the struggle, yet otherwise unhurt. There were no
words spoken, but black and white hands clasped silently, and then Neb
crept back into the saddle, shivering in his wet clothes as the cool night
wind swept against him. Keeping close in toward shore, yet far enough out
so that the water would hide their trail, the fugitives toiled steadily up
stream, guided only by the black outline of the low bank upon their left.
In the Sand Desert
Suddenly Keith halted, bringing his pony's head sharply about, so that the
two faced one another. The wind was rising, hurling clouds of sand into
their eyes, and the plainsman held one hand before his face.
"There's no need of keeping up a water trail any longer," he said quietly.
"By all the signs we're in for a sand storm by daylight, and that will
cover our tracks so the devil himself couldn't follow them. Got a water
bag on your saddle?"
"I reck'n dis am one, sah."
Keith felt of the object Neb held forth.
"Yes, and a big one, too; fill it and strap it on tight; we've got a long,
dry ride ahead."
"Whar' yo' propose goin', Massa Jack?"
"To the 'Bar X' on the Canadian. I've worked with that outfit. They'll
give us whatever we need, and ask no questions; I don't know of anything
in between. It's going to be a hard ride, boy, and mighty little to eat
except what I saved from supper."
"How far am it to dis yere 'Bar X'?"
"A hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies, and sand all the way, except
for the valley of Salt Fork. Come on now, and keep close, for it's easy to
get lost in these sand hills."
Keith had ridden that hundred and fifty miles of sandy desolation before,
but had never been called upon to make such a journey as this proved to
be. He knew there was little to fear from human enemies, for they were
riding far enough east of the Santa Fe trail to be out of the path of
raiding parties, while this desert country was shunned by Indian hunters.
It consisted of sand hill after sand hill, a drear waterless waste where
nothing grew, and amid the dread sameness of which a traveller could only
find passage by the guidance of stars at night or the blazing sun by day.
To the eye mile after mile appeared exactly alike, with nothing whatever
to distinguish either distance or direction--the same drifting ridges of
sand stretching forth in every direction, no summit higher than another,
no semblance of green shrubbery, or silver sheen of running water anywhere
to break the dull monotony--a vast sandy plain, devoid of life, extending
to the horizon, overhung by a barren sky.
They had covered ten miles of it by daybreak, their ponies travelling
heavily, fetlock deep, but could advance no further. With the first tint
of rose in the east the brooding storm burst upon them in wild desert
fury, the fierce wind buffeting them back, lashing their faces with sharp
grit until they were unable to bear the pain. The flying sand smote them
in clouds, driven with the speed of bullets. In vain they lay flat, urging
their ponies forward; the beasts, maddened and blinded by the merciless
lashing of the sand, refused to face the storm. Keith, all sense of
direction long since lost, rolled wearily from the saddle, burrowed under
the partial shelter of a sand dune, and called upon Neb to follow him.
With their hands and feet they made a slight wind-break, dragging the
struggling ponies into its protection, and burrowed themselves there, the
clouds of sand skurrying over them so thick as to obscure the sky, and
rapidly burying them altogether as though in a grave. Within an hour they
were compelled to dig themselves out, yet it proved partial escape from
the pitiless lashing. The wind howled like unloosed demons, and the air
grew cold, adding to the sting of the grit, when some sudden eddy hurled
it into their hiding place. To endeavor further travel would mean certain
death, for no one could have guided a course for a hundred feet through
the tempest, which seemed to suck the very breath away. To the fugitives
came this comfort--if they could not advance, then no one else could
follow, and the storm was completely blotting out their trail.
It was three o'clock before it died sufficiently down for them to venture
out. Even then the air remained full of sand, while constantly shifting
ridges made travel difficult. Only grim necessity--the suffering of the
ponies for water, and their own need for soon reaching the habitation of
man and acquiring food--drove them to the early venture. They must attain
the valley of the Salt Fork that night, or else perish in the desert--
there remained no other choice. Tying neckerchiefs over their horses'
eyes, and lying flat themselves, they succeeded in pressing slowly
forward, winding in and out among the shifting dunes, with only the wind
to guide them. It was an awful trail, the hoofs sinking deep in drifting
sand, the struggling ponies becoming so exhausted that their riders
finally dismounted, and staggered forward on foot, leading them stumbling
blindly after. Once the negro's horse dropped, and had to be lashed to its
feet again; once Keith's pony stumbled and fell on him, hurling him face
down into the sand, and he would have died there, lacking sufficient
strength to lift the dead weight, but for Neb's assistance. As it was he
went staggering blindly forward, bruised, and faint from hunger and
fatigue. Neither man spoke; they had no breath nor energy left to waste;
every ounce of strength needed to be conserved for the battle against
nature. They were fighting for life; fighting grimly, almost hopelessly,
About them night finally closed in, black and starless, yet fortunately
with a gradual dying away of the storm. For an hour past they had been
struggling on, doubting their direction, wondering dully if they were not
lost and merely drifting about in a circle. They had debated this fiercely
once, the ponies standing dejectedly, tails to the storm, Neb arguing that
the wind still blew from the south, and Keith contending it had shifted
into the westward. The white man won his way, and they staggered on
uncertain, the negro grasping the first pony's tail to keep from being
separated from his companion. Some instinct of the plains must have guided
them, for at last they dragged themselves out from the desert, the
crunching sand under foot changing into rock, and then to short brittle
grass, at which the ponies nibbled eagerly. The slope led gradually
downward, the animals scenting water, and struggling to break away.
Swaying in their saddles, the riders let them go, and they never stopped
until belly deep in the stream, their noses buried. The men shivered in
their saddles, until, at last satisfied, the ponies consented to be forced
back up the bank, where they nibbled at the short tufts of herbage, but in
a manner expressive of weariness. Keith flung himself on the ground, every
muscle of his body aching, his exposed flesh still smarting from the hail
of sand through which they had passed.
He had not the slightest conception as to where they were, except he knew
this must be the Salt Fork. Utterly confused by the maze of shifting
dunes, through whose intricacies they had somehow found passage, the
blackness of the night yielded no clue as to their point of emergence. The
volume of water in the stream alone suggested that in their wanderings
they must have drifted to the eastward, and come out much lower down than
had been originally intended. If so, then they might be almost directly
south of Carson City, and in a section with which he was totally
unacquainted. One thing was, however, certain--they would be compelled to
wait for daylight to ascertain the truth, and decide upon their future
movements. There was another barren, sandy stretch of desolation lying
between this isolated valley and that of the Canadian, and their horses
would never stand to be pushed forward without both rest and food. As to
themselves--they had eaten their last crumb long since, but this was not
the first time both had known starvation.
Keith arose reluctantly, and removed the saddles from the animals,
hobbling them so they could graze at will. Neb was propped up beneath an
out-cropping of the bank, which partly protected him from the wind, a mere
hulk of a shadow. Keith could not tell whether he slept or not, but made
no effort to disturb him. A moment he stared vacantly about into the black
silence, and then lay down, pillowing his head upon a saddle. He found it
impossible to sleep, the chill of the wind causing him to turn and twist,
in vain search after comfort, while unappeased hunger gnawed incessantly.
His eyes ranged about over the dull gloom of the skies until they fell
again to the earth level, and then he suddenly sat up, half believing
himself in a dream--down the stream, how far away he could not judge,
there gleamed a steady, yellowish light. It was no flicker of a camp fire,
yet remained stationary. Surely no star could be so low and large; nor did
he recall any with that peculiarity of color. If such a miracle was
possible in the heart of that sandy desert he would have sworn it was a
lamp shining through a window. But he had never heard of any settler on
the Salt Fork, and almost laughed at the thought, believing for the
instant his brain played him some elfish trick. Yet that light was no
illusion; he rubbed his eyes, only to see it more clearly, convinced now
of its reality. He strode hastily across, and shook Neb into semi-
consciousness, dragging him bodily up the bank and pointing down stream.
"Do you see that?" he inquired anxiously. "There, straight ahead of you?"
The negro stared, shaking with cold, and scarcely able to stand alone.
"Maybe it am de moon, Massa Jack," he muttered thickly, "or a goblin's
lantern. Lawd, I don't jest like de looks ob dat ting."
"Well, I do," and Keith laughed uneasily at the negro's fears. "All I
wanted to know was if you saw what I saw. That's a lamp shining through a
window, Neb. What in heaven's name it can be doing here I am unable to
guess, but I'm going to find out. It means shelter and food, boy, even if
we have to fight for it. Come on, the horses are safe, and we'll discover
what is behind that light yonder."
The Wilderness Cabin
The light was considerably farther away than they had at first supposed,
and as they advanced steadily toward it, the nature of the ground rapidly
changed, becoming irregular, and littered with low growing shrubs. In the
darkness they stumbled over outcroppings of rock, and after a fall or two,
were compelled to move forward with extreme caution. But the mysterious
yellow glow continually beckoned, and with new hope animating the hearts
of both men, they staggered on, nerving themselves to the effort, and
following closely along the bank of the stream.
At last they arrived where they could perceive dimly something of the
nature of this unexpected desert oasis.
The light shone forth, piercing the night, through the uncurtained window
of a log cabin, which would otherwise have been completely concealed from
view by a group of low growing cottonwoods. This was all the black,
enshrouding night revealed, and even this was merely made apparent by the
yellow illumination of the window. The cabin stood upon an island, a strip
of sand, partially covered by water, separating it from the north shore on
which they stood. There was no sign of life about the hut, other than the
burning lamp, but that alone was sufficient evidence of occupancy. In
spite of hunger, and urgent need, Keith hesitated, uncertain as to what
they might be called upon to face. Who could be living in this out-of-the-
way spot, in the heart of this inhospitable desert? It would be no cattle
outpost surely, for there was no surrounding grazing land, while surely no
professional hunter would choose such a barren spot for headquarters.
Either a hermit, anxious to escape all intercourse with humanity, or some
outlaw hiding from arrest, would be likely to select so isolated a place
in which to live. To them it would be ideal. Away from all trails, where
not even widely roving cattlemen would penetrate, in midst of a desert
avoided by Indians because of lack of game,--a man might hide here year
after year without danger of discovery. Yet such a one would not be likely
to welcome their coming, and they were without arms. But Keith was not a
man to hesitate long because of possible danger, and he stepped down into
the shallow water.
"Come on, Neb," he commanded, "and we 'll find out who lives here."
The window faced the west, and he came up the low bank to where the door
fronted the north in intense darkness. Under the shadow of the cottonwoods
he could see nothing, groping his way, with hands extended. His foot
struck a flat stone, and he plunged forward, striking the unlatched door
so heavily as to swing it open, and fell partially forward into the room.
As he struggled to his knees, Neb's black face peering past him into the
lighted interior, he seemed to perceive in one swift, comprehensive
glance, every revealed detail. A lamp burned on a rudely constructed set
of drawers near the window, and a wood fire blazed redly in a stone
fireplace opposite, the yellow and red lights blending in a peculiar glow
of color. Under this radiance were revealed the rough log walls, plastered
with yellow clay, and hung about with the skins of wild animals, a roughly
made table, bare except for a book lying upon it, and a few ordinary
appearing boxes, evidently utilized as seats, together with a barrel cut
so as to make a comfortable chair. In the back wall was a door, partially
open, apparently leading into a second room. That was all, except the
Keith must have perceived all these in that first hurried glance, for they
were ever after closely associated together in his mind, yet at the moment
he possessed no clear thought of anything except her. She stood directly
behind the table, where she must have sprung hastily at the first sound of
their approach, clutching at the rude mantel above the fireplace, and
staring toward him, her face white, her breath coming in sobs. At first he
thought the vision a dream, a delirium born from his long struggle; he
could not conceive the possibility of such a presence in this lonely
place, and staggering to his feet, gazed wildly, dumbly at the slender,
gray clad figure, the almost girlish face under the shadowing dark hair,
expecting the marvellous vision to vanish. Surely this could not be real!
A woman, and such a woman as this here, and alone, of all places! He
staggered from weakness, almost terror, and grasped the table to hold
himself erect. The rising wind came swirling in through the open door,
causing the fire to send forth spirals of smoke, and he turned, dragging
the dazed negro within, and snapping the latch behind him. When he glanced
around again he fully believed the vision confronting him would have
vanished. But no! there she yet remained, those wide-open, frightened
brown eyes, with long lashes half hiding their depths, looking directly
into his own; only now she had slightly changed her posture, leaning
toward him across the table. Like a flash he comprehended that this was
reality--flesh and blood--and, with the swift instinct of a gentleman, his
numbed, nerveless fingers jerked off his hat, and he bowed bareheaded
"Pardon me," he said, finding his voice with difficulty. "I fell over the
step, but--but I didn't expect to find a woman here."
He heard her quick breathing, marked a slight change in the expression of
the dark eyes, and caught the glitter of the firelight on a revolver in
her lowered hand.
"What did you expect to find?"
"I hardly knew," he explained lamely; "we stumbled on this hut by
accident. I didn't know there was a cabin in all this valley."
"Then you are not here for any purpose? to meet with any one?"
"No; we were lost, and had gone into camp up above, when we discovered
"Where do you come from?"
Keith hesitated just an instant, yet falsehood was never easy for him, and
he saw no occasion for any deceit now.
"What brought you here?"
"We started for the 'Bar X' Ranch down below, on the Canadian; got caught
in a sand-storm, and then just drifted. I do not know within twenty miles
of where we are."
She drew a deep breath of unconcealed relief.
"Are you alone?"
"The negro and I--yes; and you haven't the slightest reason to be afraid
of us--we're square."
She looked at him searchingly, and something in Keith's clean-cut face
seemed to bring reassurance, confidence in the man.
"I am not afraid," she answered, coming toward him around the short table.
"Only it is so lonely here, and you startled me, bursting in without
warning. But you look all right, and I am going to believe your story.
What is your name?"
"A little of everything, I reckon," a touch of returning bitterness in the
tone. "A plainsman, who has punched cattle, but my last job was government
"You look as though you might be more than that," she said slowly.
The man flushed, his lips pressing tightly together. "Well, I--I may have
been," he confessed unwillingly. "I started out all right, but somehow I
reckon I just went adrift. It's a habit in this country."
Apparently those first words of comment had left her lips unthinkingly,
for she made no attempt to reply; merely stood there directly facing him,
her clear eyes gazing frankly into his own. He seemed to actually see her
now for the first time, fairly--a supple, slender figure, simply dressed,
with wonderfully excessive brown eyes, a perfect wealth of dark hair, a
clear complexion with slight olive tinge to it, a strong, intelligent
face, not strictly beautiful, yet strangely attractive, the forehead low
and broad, the nose straight, the lips full and inclined to smile.
Suddenly a vague remembrance brought recognition.
"Why, I know you now."
"Indeed!" the single word a note of undisguised surprise.
"Yes; I thought you looked oddly familiar all the time, but couldn't for
the life of me connect up. You're Christie Maclaire."
"Am I?" her eyes filled with curiosity.
"Of course you are. You needn't be afraid of me if you want it kept
secret, but I know you just the same. Saw you at the 'Gaiety' in
Independence, maybe two months ago. I went three times, mostly on your
account. You've got a great act, and you can sing too."
She stood in silence, still looking fixedly at him, her bosom rising and
falling, her lips parted as if to speak. Apparently she did not know what
to do, how to act, and was thinking swiftly.
"Mr. Keith," she said, at last in decision, "I am going to ask you to blot
that all out--to forget that you even suspect me of being Christie
Maclaire, of the Gaiety."
"Why, certainly; but would you explain?"
"There is little enough to explain. It is sufficient that I am here alone
with you. Whether I wish to or not, I am compelled to trust myself to your
protection. You may call me Christie Maclaire, or anything else you
please; you may even think me unworthy respect, but you possess the face
of a gentleman, and as such I am going to trust you--I must trust you.
Will you accept my confidence on these terms?"
Keith did not smile, nor move. Weak from hunger and fatigue, he leaned
wearily against the wall. Nevertheless that simple, womanly appeal awoke
all that was strong and sacrificing within him, although her words were so
unexpected that, for the moment, he failed to realize their full purport.
Finally he straightened up.
"I--I accept any terms you desire," he gasped weakly, "if--if you will
only give one return."
"Food; we have eaten nothing for sixty hours." Her face, which had been so
white, flushed to the hair, her dark eyes softening.
"Why, of course; sit down. I ought to have known from your face. There is
plenty here--such as it is--only you must wait a moment."
The Girl of the Cabin
He saw Neb drop down before the blazing fireplace, and curl up like a
tired dog, and observed her take the lamp, open the door into the other
room a trifle, and slip silently out of sight. He remembered staring
vaguely about the little room, still illumined by the flames, only half
comprehending, and then the reaction from his desperate struggle with the
elements overcame all resolution, and he dropped his head forward on the
table, and lost consciousness. Her hand upon his shoulder aroused him,
startled into wakefulness, yet he scarcely realized the situation.
"I have placed food for the negro beside him," she said quietly, and for
the first time Keith detected the soft blur in her speech.
"You are from the South!" he exclaimed, as though it was a discovery.
"My boyhood began in Virginia--the negro was an old-time slave in our
She glanced across at the black, now sitting up and eating voraciously.
"I thought he had once been a slave; one can easily tell that. I did not
ask him to sit here because, if you do not object, we will eat here
together. I have also been almost as long without food. It was so lonely
here, and--and I hardly understood my situation--and I simply could not
force myself to eat."
He distinguished her words clearly enough, although she spoke low, as if
she preferred what was said between them should not reach the ears of the
negro, yet somehow, for the moment, they made no adequate impression on
him. Like a famished wolf he began on the coarse fare, and for ten minutes
hardly lifted his head. Then his eyes chanced to meet hers across the
narrow table, and instantly the gentleman within him reawoke to life.
"I have been a perfect brute," he acknowledged frankly, "with no thought
except for myself. Hunger was my master, and I ask your forgiveness, Miss
Her eyes smiled.
"I am so very glad to have any one here--any one--in whom I feel even a
little confidence--that nothing else greatly matters. Can you both eat,
Keith nodded, his eyes full of interest, searching her face.
"Whoever I may be, Mr. Keith, and really that seems only of small
importance, I came to Fort Larned seeking some trace of my only brother,
whom we last heard from there, where he had fallen into evil
companionship. On the stage trip I was fortunate enough to form an
acquaintance with a man who told me he knew where I could meet Fred, but
that the boy was hiding because of some trouble he had lately gotten into,
and that I should have to proceed very carefully so as not to lead the
officers to discover his whereabouts. This gentleman was engaged in some
business at Carson City, but he employed a man to bring me to this place,
and promised to get Fred, and meet me here the following day. There must
have been some failure in the plans, for I have been here entirely alone
now for three days. It has been very lonesome, and--and I've been a little
frightened. Perhaps I ought not to have come, and I am not certain what
kind of a place this is. I was so afraid when you came, but I am not
"You have no need to be," he said soberly, impressed by the innocent
candor of the girl, and feeling thankful that he was present to aid her.
"I could not wrong one of the South."
"My father always told me I could trust a Southern gentleman under any
circumstance. Mr. Hawley was from my own State, and knew many of our old
friends. That was why I felt such unusual confidence in him, although he
was but a travelling acquaintance."
"The gentleman whom I met on the stage."
"Oh, yes; you said he was in business in Carson City, but I don't seem to
remember any one of that name."
"He was not there permanently; only to complete some business deal."
"And your brother? I may possibly have known him."
She hesitated an instant, her eyes dropping, until completely shaded by
the long lashes.
"He--he was rather a wild boy, and ran away from home to enlist in the
army. But he got into a bad set, and--and deserted. That was part of the
trouble which caused him to hide. He enlisted under the name of Fred
Willoughby. Mr. Hawley told me this much, but I am afraid he did not tell
"And he said you would meet him here?"
Keith gazed about on the bare surroundings wonderingly. What was this
place, hidden away in the midst of the desert, isolated in a spot where
not even Indians roamed. Could it be a secret rendezvous of crime, the
headquarters of desperadoes, of cattle-rustlers, of highwaymen of the
Santa Fe Trail--a point to which they could ride when hard pressed,
certain of hiding here in safety? He began to suspect this, but, if so,
who then was this Hawley, and with what object had he sent this girl here?
Every way he turned was to confront mystery, to face a new puzzle.
Whatever she might be--even the music hall singer he believed--she had
been inveigled here innocently enough. Even now she possessed only the
most vague suspicion that she had been deceived. The centre of the whole
plot, if there was a plot, must be Hawley.
"Yes," she replied, "he said that this was one of the stations of a big
ranch on which Fred was employed, and that he would certainly be here
within a day or two."
"You met Hawley on the stage coach? How did you become acquainted?"
"We were alone for nearly fifty miles," her voice faltering slightly,
"and--and he called me what you did."
"Yes; he--he seemed to think he knew me, and I needed help so much that I
let him believe so. I thought it could do no harm, and then, when I found
he actually knew Fred, I didn't think of anything else, only how fortunate
I was to thus meet him. Surely something serious must have happened, or he
would have been here before this. Do you--do you suppose there is anything
Keith did not smile nor change posture. The more he delved into the
matter, the more serious he felt the situation to be. He knew all those
ranches lying south on the Canadian, and was aware that this was no out-
station. No cattle ever came across that sandy desert unless driven by
rustlers, and no honest purpose could account for this isolated hut. There
had been frequent robberies along the trail, and he had overheard tales of
mysterious disappearances in both Larned and Carson City. Could it be that
he had now, accidentally, stumbled upon the rendezvous of the gang? He was
not a man easily startled, but this thought sent his heart beating. He
knew enough to realize what such a gang would naturally consist of--
deserters, outlaws, rustlers; both Indians and whites, no doubt, combined
under some desperate leadership. Gazing into the girl's questioning eyes
he could scarcely refrain from blurting out all he suspected. Yet why
should he? What good could it do? He could not hope to bear her south to
the "Bar X" Ranch, for the ponies were already too thoroughly exhausted
for such a journey; he dared not turn north with her, for that would mean
his own arrest, leaving her in worse condition than ever. If he only knew
who this man Hawley was, his purpose, and plans! Yet what protection could
he and Neb prove, alone here, and without arms? All this flashed through
his mind in an instant, leaving him confused and uncertain.
"I hope not," he managed to say in answer to her query. "But it is rather
a strange mix-up all around, and I confess I fail to comprehend its full
meaning. It is hardly likely your friends will show up to-night, and by
morning perhaps we can decide what is best to do. Let me look around
outside a moment."
Her eyes followed him as he stepped through the door into the darkness;
then her head dropped into the support of her hands. There was silence
except for the crackling of the fire, until Neb moved uneasily. At the
sound the girl looked up, seeing clearly the good-natured face of the
"Yo' don't nebber need cry, Missus," he said soberly, "so long as Massa
Jack done 'greed to look after yo'."
"Have--have you known him long?"
"Has I knowed him long, honey? Ebber sence befo' de wah. Why I done knowed
Massa Jack when he wan't more'n dat high. Lawd, he sho' was a lively
youngster, but mighty good hearted to us niggers."
She hesitated to question a servant, and yet felt she must uncover the
"Who is he? Is he all he claims to be--a Virginia gentleman?"
All the loyalty and pride of slavery days was in Neb. "He sho' am, Missus;
dar ain't nuthin' higher in ol' Virginia dan de Keiths. Dey ain't got much
money sence the Yankees come down dar, but dey's quality folks jest de
same. I was done born on de ol' Co'nel's plantation, and I reck'n dar
wan't no finer man ebber libed. He was done killed in de wah. An' Massa
Jack he was a captain; he rode on hossback, an' Lawdy, but he did look
scrumptuous when he first got his uniform. He done fought all through de
wah, an' dey say Ginral Lee done shook hands wid him, an' said how proud
he was ter know him. You kin sutt'nly tie to Massa Jack, Missus."
The negro's voice had scarcely ceased when Keith came in again, closing
the door securely behind him.
"All quiet outside," he announced, speaking with new confidence. "I wanted
to get an understanding of the surroundings in case of emergency," he
explained, as if in answer to the questioning of the brown eyes gravely
uplifted to his face. "I see there is quite a corral at the lower end of
this island, safely hidden behind the fringe of cottonwoods. And a log
stable back of the house. Is the creek fordable both ways?"
"I think so; the man who brought me here rode away south."
"And are you going to trust yourself to my care?"
She came around the table with hands extended. He took them into his
grasp, looking down into her eyes.
"Yes," she said softly, "I am going to trust you, Captain Keith."
"Captain, hey? You must have been talking with that black rascal there."
The swift color flooded her face, but her hands remained imprisoned.
"I just done tol' her who de Keiths was down in ol' Virginia, sah," burst
in Neb indignantly. "I sho' don't want nobody to think I go trapsin'
'round wid any low white trash."
The gray eyes and the brown, gazing into one another, smiled with
"Oh, well," Keith acknowledged, genially, "I cannot say I am sorry you
know something of my past glories; if one can't have a future, it is some
source of pride to have a past to remember. But now about the present.
We're not much protection to any one, the way we're fixed, as we are
"There is a big revolver hanging in a holster in the other room," she
answered, "and a short, sawed-off gun of some kind, but I don't know about
"May we investigate?"
"Most certainly," and she threw open the intervening door. As the two
stepped into the other apartment she held the lamp in aid of their search.
"There is the revolver on the wall, and the gun is in the opposite corner.
Isn't it strange you should be out in this country without arms?"
Keith glanced up, the revolver in his hands. The radiance of the light was
full upon her face, revealing the clearness of her skin, the dark shadows
of her lashes. There was the faintest tinge of suspicion to the question,
but he answered easily.
"We left Carson in something of a hurry. I'll tell you the story
Mr. Hawley Reveals Himself
A fragment of candle, stuck tightly into the neck of an empty bottle,
appeared on a low shelf, and Keith lighted it, the girl returning the lamp
to its former position on the front room table. Investigation revealed a
dozen cartridges fitting the revolver, but no ammunition was discovered
adapted to the sawed-off gun, which Neb had already appropriated, and was
dragging about with him, peering into each black corner in anxious search.
The two were still busily employed at this, when to their ears, through
the stillness of the night, there came the unexpected noise of splashing
in the water without, and then the sound of a horse stumbling as he struck
the bank. Quick as a flash Keith closed the intervening door, extinguished
the dim flame of the candle, and grasping the startled negro's arm, hushed
him into silence.
Crouching close behind the door, through a crack of which the light
streamed, yielding slight view of the interior, the plainsman anxiously
awaited developments. These arrivals must certainly be some of those
connected with the house; there could be little doubt as to that.
Nevertheless, they might prove the posse following them, who had chanced
to stumble accidentally on their retreat. In either case they could merely
wait, and learn. Some one swore without, and was sharply rebuked by
another voice, which added an order gruffly. Then the outer latch clicked,
and a single man stepped within, immediately closing the door. Keith could
not see the girl through the small aperture, but he heard her quick
exclamation, startled, yet full of relief.
"Oh, is it you? I am so glad!"
The man laughed lightly.
"It is nice to be welcomed, although, perhaps, after your time of
loneliness any arrival would prove a relief. Did you think I was never
"I could not understand," she replied, evidently with much less
enthusiasm, and to Keith's thinking, a shade resentful of the familiarity,
"but naturally supposed you must be unexpectedly delayed."
"Well, I was," and he apparently flung both coat and hat on a bench, with
the intention of remaining, "The marshal arrested a fellow for a murder
committed out on the Santa Fe Trail, and required me as a witness. But the
man got away before we had any chance to try him, and I have been on his
trail ever since."
"A murder! Did you imagine he came this way?"
"Not very likely; fact of it is, the sand storm yesterday destroyed all
traces, and, as a result, we've lost him. So I headed a few of the boys
over in this direction, as I wanted to relieve you of anxiety."
She was silent an instant, and the man crossed to the fireplace, where
Keith could gain a glimpse of him. Already suspicious from the familiar
sound of his voice, he was not surprised to recognize "Black Bart." The
plainsman's fingers gripped the negro's arm, his eyes burning. So this
gambler and blackleg was the gentlemanly Mr. Hawley, was he; well, what
could be his little game? Why had he inveigled the girl into this lonely
spot? And what did he now propose doing with her? As he crouched there,
peering through that convenient crack in the door, Keith completely forgot
his own peril, intent only upon this new discovery. She came slowly around
the end of the table, and stood leaning against it, her face clearly
revealed in the light of the lamp. For the first time Keith really
perceived its beauty, its fresh charm. Could such as she be singer and
dancer in a frontier concert hall? And if so, what strange conditions ever
drove her into that sort of life?
"Is--is Fred with you?" she questioned, doubtfully.
"No; he's with another party riding farther west," the man's eyes
surveying her with manifest approval. "You are certainly looking fine
to-night, my girl. It's difficult to understand how I ever managed to keep
away from you so long."
She flushed to the hair, her lips trembling at the open boldness of his
"I--I prefer you would not speak like that," she protested.
"And why not?" with a light laugh. "Come, Christie, such fine airs are a
trifle out of place. If I didn't know you were a concert hall artist, I
might be more deeply impressed. As it is, I reckon you've heard love words
"Mr. Hawley, I have trusted you as a gentleman. I never came here except
on your promise to bring me to my brother," and she stood erect before
him. "You have no right to even assume that I am Christie Maclaire."
"Sure not; I don't assume. I have seen that lady too often to be mistaken.
Don't try on that sort of thing with me--I don't take to it kindly.
Perhaps a kiss might put you in better humor."
He took a step forward, as though proposing to carry out his threat, but
the girl stopped him, her eyes burning with indignation.