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Keith of the Border by Randall Parrish

Part 4 out of 5

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Conversing lightly, and without a word to alarm the girl, he yet managed
to observe every movement of the dimly outlined figure which advanced with
them, timing every motion to theirs. Long before they crossed the street
to the Trocadero he was convinced there was no mistake--the fellow,
whoever he might be, was trailing them. Keith smiled grimly to himself,
resolving that, as soon as he had left the lady, he would teach the spy a
lesson not soon to be forgotten.

They barely entered the outer circle of the Trocadero lights, noting a
group of men thronging about the doors, and hearing the sound of the band
within, and then turned swiftly down the narrow dark alley-way leading
toward the stage entrance. Keith, having been there before, advanced
confidently, but Hope, her heart beating wildly, clung to his arm,
scarcely venturing a word in reply to his whispered assurances.
Fortunately they encountered no one, and Keith, feeling cautiously in the
dark, easily succeeded in locating the opening to the vestibule. Listening
intently he became convinced that no one occupied the little shed. He had
intended to remain with the girl until the time came for her to emerge,
but the remembrance of that figure dogging them all the way from the hotel
now caused a change of plan. He held her hand closely clasped in his.

"Now, Hope, I am going to leave you," he whispered, "and your own wit will
have to carry you through. I know you will play your part all right, and
it will be mine to wait for Christie, and give her some explanation of why
Hawley failed to meet her as he promised. It will never do for her to
suspect, until you time to learn all possible. You are not afraid?"

"Yes, I am," clinging to him, "but--but I am going through it just the

"The truest kind of courage, my girl. Now slip inside, but hold the door
ajar. Hawley will certainly be here within ten minutes, and you must join
him at once, or else the other might appear. You can judge as to its being
him even in this darkness. Good-bye."

The longing to clasp her in his arms, to speak the language of his heart,
was almost overwhelming, yet the memory of that figure slinking along
behind them, and the brief time before Hawley's probable appearance, for
he would leave the theatre at the conclusion of Miss Maclaire's act,
restrained all demonstration. This was a moment for action, not for words
of love; no delay should hazard the success of their undertaking. He heard
the slight creak of the door as the girl slipped within the concealment of
the vestibule, and then he glided away through the darkness with the
stealthy silence of an Indian. There was no one in the alley-way, which
was narrow and easily explored, but the glow from the front windows
plainly revealed the shadow of a man near the entrance, and Keith slipped
up toward him, hugging the side of the building for concealment, prepared
to resort to harsh measures. As he reached out, gripping the astonished
loiterer by the collar, the two stared at one another in surprise, and the
gripping hand as instantly released its hold.

"You, Fairbain! What the devil does this mean? What are you spying on us

Clearly taken aback, yet not greatly disturbed, his eyes showing
pugnacious and his jaw set, the Doctor rubbed his throat where Keith's
knuckles had left a red welt.

"Damn you, I think I'm the one to ask for an explanation," he growled.
"She said she was not going with you, and now you are around here together
at this hour. I had a right to know whether I was being played with like

"But, man, that was not Miss Maclaire I was with; it was Hope Waite. Come
back here under the tent flap while I explain."

Fearful of the coming of Hawley he fairly dragged the portly figure of the
bewildered Doctor with him, striving, by quickly spoken words, to make him
comprehend the situation. Knowing previously something of the issues
involved, it was not difficult to make Fairbain grasp the meaning of this
present movement, yet his sympathies were at once enlisted upon the side
of Miss Christie. He'd be damned if he would have any part in such a
scheme--if she had a right to the money he'd help her get it--it was a
cowardly trick, and he'd fight if necessary, to keep her from becoming a
victim. His voice rose, his arms brandishing violently, his sentences
snapping like rifle shots. Keith angered, and fearful of a discovery which
would leave Hope exposed, realized the futility of discussion and turned
to physical force. Grasping the gesticulating man with both hands, he
flung him backward and dragged him into the empty tent, kneeling on him as
he throttled him to the earth.

"Now, Doctor, you listen to me," he said sternly, "I'm through arguing. I
hate to treat you like this, for you are my friend, but I'll not stand for
interference here. Do you get that, you old fool? Lie still until I get
through! I respect your feelings toward Miss Maclaire. She is a good girl,
and I hope to heaven you get her if you want her. But you never will if
you permit this affair to go on. Yes, I know what I am talking about. In
all that Hope and I do we are serving you and Christie,--our only fight is
with 'Black Bart' Hawley. Stop being a bullet-headed old fool, Fairbain,
and understand this thing. Lie still, I tell you, and hear me out! Hawley
is a liar, a thief, and a swindler. There is a swindle in this thing
somewhere, and he hopes to pull out a big sum of money from it. He is
merely using Christie to pull his own chestnuts out of the fire. She is
innocent; we realize that, but this fellow is going to ruin the girl
unless we succeed in exposing him. He's not only involving her in his
criminal conspiracy, but he's making love to her; he's teaching her to
love him. That's part of his scheme, no doubt, for then she will be so
much easier handled. I tell you, Fairbain, your only chance to ever win
the interest of Christie Maclaire is to help us down this fellow Hawley.
Yes, you can sit up; I reckon you're beginning to see clearer, ain't you?"

Keith drew aside the flap of the tent to glance without, the light falling
on Fairbain's face as he struggled to a sitting posture. He had had a new
thought driven into him, yet failed to entirely grasp its significance.

"But, Jack," he asked, still half angry, "how about the girl? Hasn't she
any right to this money?"

"I don't know," honestly, "we don't any of us know, but whatever she has
the right to she is going to get. You can bet on that, old man. We're
bucking Hawley not Christie Maclaire--get that into your head. He hasn't
any right, that's certain, for he murdered and stole to get the papers--be
quiet! Here the fellow comes now!"

They peered out together through the convenient tent flap, Fairbain
scarcely less interested than the other, already dimly comprehending that
his truly dangerous rival was the gambler, and that he could best serve
the lady by helping to prove to her the real character of that individual.
He was still blindly groping in the haze, yet out of Keith's sharp,
stinging words there had come to him a guiding light. The latter gripped
his arm in restraint.

"Easy, old man, easy--let him pass."

Hawley turned into the alley whistling, evidently well pleased with the
situation and anticipating other delights awaiting his coming. The glow of
the Trocadero's lights served, an instant, to reveal his face, shaded by
the broad brim of his hat, and then he vanished into the dark. Keith
leaning far out, yet keeping well within the shadows, heard the faint
creak of the vestibule door and the soft murmur of distant voices. Then he
drew back suddenly, his hand again grasping Fairbain. Two figures--those
of a man and woman--emerged into the dim light, and as quickly
disappeared. Apparently her hand was upon his arm, and he was bending down
so as to gain a glimpse of the face partially concealed by the folds of
the mantilla. Only a word or two reached them, a little laugh, and the
woman's voice:

"Why, of course I hurried; you said you had something of such importance
to tell me."

"Fairbain," spoke Keith, his lips almost at the ear of the other. "That
was Hope, all right, and she has got him going already. Now, man, will you
help us out?"

"I? How?"

"Go back there, and meet Miss Maclaire. I don't care where you take her--
lunch, anywhere; only keep her from the hotel as long as possible. You can
do it far better than I, for she will not suspect you of any interest in
this affair. Tell her any lie you can think up on account of Hawley's
absence. Good Lord, old man, can't you see this is your chance; go in and

Fairbain struggled to his feet, still a bit dazed and uncertain, yet
tempted by the opportunity.

"You're perfectly sure, Keith, this isn't anything that will hurt the

"Sure! Of course I am. It's just Hawley I'm gunning after. For God's sake,
haven't you got that clear yet?"

"I--I reckon I'm an old fool, Jack," admitted the Doctor regretfully, "and
when an old fool is in love he hasn't got any sense left. Anyhow I'll do
what you want me to now. Where are you going?"

"To watch those others. There is no knowing what play Hawley might try to
pull off, and I want to keep within gun-shot of him. Hurry up, man; that
vestibule door creaked just then."

He shoved him down the dark alley, and dodged back himself across the
front of the tent out into the street. There was a crowd of men in front
of the Trocadero, but the couple he sought were nowhere in sight.

Chapter XXIX

By Force of Arms

With her heart throbbing fiercely, Hope clung to the outer door of the
vestibule endeavoring to see a little of what was transpiring without.
About her was dense darkness, and she dare not explore the surroundings.
Behind could be heard, through what must have been a thin partition, the
various distractions of the stage, shifting scenery, music, shuffling
feet, voices, and the occasional sound of applause. The girl had nerved
herself to the encounter with Hawley but this waiting here in darkness and
uncertainty tried her to the uttermost. If some one should venture out
that way how could she excuse her presence or explain her purpose? She
found herself trembling in every limb from nervous fear, startled by every
strange sound. Would the man never come? Surely Christie herself must be
ready to depart by this time.

Almost prepared to flee before the terrors thus conjured up within her
mind, they left her as if by magic the moment her straining eyes
distinguished the approach of a dim figure without. She could not tell who
it was, only that it was the unmistakable form of a man, and that he was
whistling softly to himself. It might not prove to be the gambler, but she
must accept the chance, for flesh and blood could stand the strain of
waiting no longer. Yet she was not conscious of fear, only of exultation,
as she stepped forth into the open, her blood again circulating freely in
her veins. At the slight creak of the door the man saw her, his whistle
ceasing, his hat lifted. Instantly she recognized him as Hawley, her heart
leaping with the excitement of encounter.

"Why, hullo, Christie," he said familiarly, "I thought I was early, and
expected a ten minutes' wait. I came out as soon as you left the stage."

"Oh, I can dress in a jiffy when there is any cause for hurry," Hope
responded, permitting herself to drift under his guidance. "Are you
disappointed? Would you prefer to commune with nature?"

"Well, I should say not," drawing her hand through his arm, and then
patting it with his own. "I have seen about all I care to of nature, but
not of Christie Maclaire."

"You may learn to feel the same regarding her," Hope answered, afraid to
encourage the man, yet eagerly fearful lest she fail to play her part

"Not the slightest danger," laughing lightly, and pressing her arm more
closely against his body. "Although I must confess you exhibited some
temper when I was late to-night."

"Did I not have occasion to? A woman should never be kept waiting,
especially if her engagement be imperative."

"Oh, I am not finding any fault, you little spitfire. I like you all the
better because you fight. But the trouble was, Christie, you simply jumped
on me without even asking how it occurred. You took it for granted I was
late on purpose to spite you."

"Well, weren't you?" and the girl glanced inquiringly up into his face, as
they passed out of the alley into the light of the Trocadero's windows.
"You certainly acted that way."

"No, I did not; but you wouldn't listen, and besides I had no time then to
explain. There's a lot happened this afternoon I want to tell you about.
Will you give me time to talk with you?"

"Why, of course," surprised at the question, yet full of eagerness. "Why
should you ask that?"

"Because I want you alone where no one can overhear a syllable. I'm afraid
of that damned hotel. You never know who is in the next room, and the
slightest whisper travels from one end to the other. That is one way in
which Keith got onto our deal--he had a room next to Willoughby and Scott,
and overheard them talking. I'm not going to take any more chances. Will
you go to 'Sheeny Joe's' with me?"

She drew back from him.

"'Sheeny Joe's'? You mean the saloon near the depot?"

"Sure; what's the use of being so squeamish? You sing and dance to a
saloon crowd, don't you? Oh, I know you're a good girl, Christie, and all
that. I'm not ranking you with these fly-by-nights around here. But
there's no reason that I can see why you should shy so at a saloon.
Besides, you won't see any one. Joe has got some back rooms where we can
be alone, and have a bite to eat while we're talking. What do you say?"

"Oh, I would rather not," Hope faltered, bewildered by this unexpected
request, already half-tempted to break away and run. "Really I--I don't
want to go there."

Hawley was evidently surprised at this refusal, naturally supposing from
her life that Miss Maclaire's scruples would be easily overcome. This
obstinacy of the girl aroused his anger.

"You women beat the devil," he ejaculated, gruffly, "pretending to be so
damn particular. Maybe you'd rather stand out there on the prairie and
talk?" with a sweep of his hand around the horizon.

"Yes, I would," catching desperately at the straw. "I'm not afraid of you;
I'm not blaming you at all, only I--I don't want to go to 'Sheeny Joe's.'"

He looked at her, puzzled at her attitude, and yet somewhat reassured by
her expression of confidence. Oh, well, what was the difference? It might
be better to let her have her own way, and the change would not materially
interfere with his plans. Of course, it would be pleasanter sitting
together at one of Joe's tables, but he could talk just as freely out
yonder under the stars. Besides, it might be as well now to humor the

"All right, Christie," his voice regaining its pleasant tone. "You shall
have your way this time. There is too much at stake for us to quarrel over

Frightened, yet not daring to resist or exhibit the least reluctance, she
clung to his arm, and permitted him to lead her to the right down a dark
passage and out into the open land beyond. He had to feel his way
carefully, and scarcely spoke, yet proceeded as though the passage was
reasonably familiar and he had some definite point in view. She answered
in monosyllables, now thoroughly regretful of having permitted herself to
drift into this position, yet not in the least knowing how to extricate
herself. Hawley took everything for granted, her very silence convincing
him of her acquiescence. With throbbing pulse, Hope felt the small
revolver hidden within her dress, undoing a button so that, in emergency,
she might grasp it more quickly. Hawley felt the movement, the trembling
of her arm.

"You are afraid, just the same," he said, pressing her to him lover-like.
"Darkness always gets on a woman's nerves."

"Yes, that and loneliness," resenting his familiarity.

"Do we need to go any farther? Surely, we are alone here."

"Only a few steps; the ravine is yonder, and we can sit down on the rocks.
I want to smoke, and we will be entirely out of sight there."

He helped her down the rather sharp declivity until both were thoroughly
concealed below the prairie level. Feeling about with his hands he found
the surface of a smooth rock, and seated her upon it. Then a match flared,
casting an instant's gleam across his face as he lighted his cigar.
Blacker than ever the night shut down about them, and he groped for a seat
beside her. She could perceive just one star peering through a rift of
cloud, and in her nostrils was the pungent odor of tobacco. With a little
shiver of disgust she drew slightly away from him, dreading what was to
come. One thing alone she felt was in her favor--however familiar Hawley
attempted to be, he was evidently not yet sufficiently sure of Miss
Maclaire to become entirely offensive. She might not have frowned at his
love-making, but apparently he had not yet progressed sufficiently far in
her good graces to venture to extremes. Hope pressed her lips together,
determined to resist any further approach of the man. However, his
earliest words were a relief.

"I reckon, Christie," he said slowly, between puffs on his cigar, the
lighted end of which faintly illumined his face, "you've got the idea I
have brought you out here to make love. Lord knows I'd like to well
enough, but just now there's more important matters on hand. Fact is, my
girl, we're up against a little back-set, and have got to make a shift in
our plans--a mighty quick shift, too," he added, almost savagely.

"I--I don't think I understand."

"No, of course, you don't. You imagine all we've got to do in a matter of
this kind is to step into the nearest court, and draw the money. One
trouble is, our evidence isn't complete--we've got to find that woman who
brought you up."

"Oh!" said Hope, not knowing what else to say.

"Yes," he went on, apparently satisfied with her exclamation. "Of course,
I know she's dead, or at least, you say so, but we haven't got enough
proof without her--not the way old Waite promises to fight your claim--and
so we've got to hunt for a substitute. Do you happen to know any old woman
about the right age who would make affidavit for you? She probably
wouldn't have to go on the stand at all. Waite will cave in as soon as he
knows we've got the evidence."

He waited for an answer, but she hardly knew what to say. Then she
remembered that Keith insisted that Miss Maclaire had no conception that
there was any fraud in her claim.

"No, I know no one. But what do you mean? I thought everything was
straight? That there was no question about my right to inherit?"

"Well, there isn't, Christie," pulling fiercely on his cigar. "But the
courts are particular; they have got to have the whole thing in black and
white. I thought all along I could settle the entire matter with Waite
outside, but the old fool won't listen to reason. I saw him twice to-day."

"Twice?" surprise wringing the word from her.

"Yes; thought I had got him off on a false scent and out of the way, the
first time, but he turned up again like a bad penny. What's worse, he's
evidently stumbled on to a bit of legal information which makes it safer
for us to disappear until we can get the links of our chain forged. He's
taken the case into court already, and the sheriff is here tryin' to find
me so as to serve the papers. I've got to skip out, and so've you."

"I?" rising to her feet, indignantly. "What have I done to be frightened

He laughed, but not pleasantly.

"Oh, hell, Christie, can't you understand? Old Waite is after you the same
way he is me. It'll knock our whole case if he can get you into court
before our evidence is ready. All you know is what I have told you--that's
straight enough--but we've got to have proof. I can get it in a month, but
he's got hold of something which gives him a leverage. I don't know what
it is--maybe it's just a bluff--but the charge is conspiracy, and he's got
warrants out. There is nothing for us to do but skip."

"But my clothes; my engagement?" she urged, feeling the insistent
earnestness of the man, and sparring for delay. "Why, I cannot go.
Besides, if the sheriff is hunting us, the trains will be watched."

"Do you suppose I am fool enough to risk the trains?" he exclaimed,
roughly, plainly losing patience. "Not much; horses and the open plains
for us, and a good night the start of them. They will search for me first,
and you'll never be missed until you fail to show up at the Trocadero.
Never mind the clothes; they can be sent after us."

"To-night!" she cried, awakening to the immediate danger, and rising to
her feet. "You urge me to fly with you to-night?--now?"

"Sure, don't be foolish and kick up a row. The horses are here waiting
just around the end of the ravine."

She pressed her hands to her breast, shrinking away from him.

"No! No! I will not go!" she declared, indignantly. "Keep back! Don't
touch me!"

Hawley must have expected the resistance, for with a single movement he
grasped her even as she turned to fly, pinning her arms helplessly to her
side, holding her as in a vice.

"Oh, but you will, my beauty," he growled. "I thought you might act up and
I'm ready. Do you think I am fool enough to leave you here alone to be
pumped dry? It is a big stake I'm playing after, girl, and I am not going
to lose it through the whims of a woman. If you won't go pleasantly, then
you'll go by force. Keep still, you tigress! Do you want me to choke you?"

She struggled to break loose, twisting and turning, but the effort was
useless. Suddenly he whistled sharply. There was the sound of feet
scrambling down the path, and the frightened woman perceived the dim
outlines of several approaching men. She gave one scream, and Hawley
released his grip on her arms to grasp her throat.

She jerked away, half-stumbling backward over a rock. The revolver,
carried concealed in her dress, was in her hand. Mad with terror, scarcely
knowing what she did, she pulled the trigger. In the flash she saw one man
throw up his hands and go down. The next instant the others were upon her.

Chapter XXX

In Christie's Room

Keith swept his glance up and down the street without results. Surely,
Hawley and his companion could not have disappeared so suddenly. They had
turned to the right, he was certain as to that, and he pushed through the
crowd of men around the theatre entrance, and hastened to overtake them.
He found nothing to overtake--nowhere along that stretch of street,
illumined by window lights, was there any sign of a man and woman walking
together. He stopped bewildered, staring blindly about, failing utterly to
comprehend this mysterious vanishing. What could it mean? What had
happened? How could they have disappeared so completely during that single
moment he had waited to speak to Fairbain? The man's heart beat like a
trip-hammer with apprehension, a sudden fear for Hope taking possession of
him. Surely the girl would never consent to enter any of those dens along
the way, and Hawley would not dare resort to force in the open street. The
very thought seemed preposterous, and yet, with no other supposition
possible, he entered these one after the other in hasty search,
questioning the inmates sharply, only to find himself totally baffled--
Hawley and Hope had vanished as though swallowed by the earth. He explored
dark passage-ways between the scattered buildings, rummaging about
recklessly, but came back to the street again without reward.

Could they have gone down the other side, in the deeper shadows, and thus
reached the hotel more quickly than it seemed to him possible? There was
hardly a chance that this could be true, and yet Keith grasped at it
desperately, cursing himself for having wasted time. Five minutes later,
breathless, almost speechless with anxiety, he startled the clerk.

"Has Miss Waite come in? Miss Hope Waite?"

"Blamed if I know," retorted the other, indifferently. "Can't for the life
of me tell those two females apart. One of them passed through 'bout ten
minutes ago; Doc Fairbain was with her. Another party just went upstairs
hunting Miss Maclaire, and as they haven't come down, I reckon it must
have been her--anything wrong?"

"I'm not sure yet," shortly. "Who was this other person?"

"Old fellow with white hair and whiskers--swore like a pirate--had the
sheriff along with him."

It came to Keith in a flash--it was Waite. Perhaps Christie knew. Perhaps
the General knew. Certainly something of importance was crystallizing in
the actress' room which might help to explain all else. He rushed up the
stairs, barely waiting to rap once at the closed door before he pressed it
open. The sight within held him silent, waiting opportunity to blurt out
his news. Here, also, was tragedy, intense, compelling, which for the
instant seemed to even overshadow the fate of the girl he loved. There
were three men present, and the woman. She stood clutching the back of a
chair, white-faced and open-eyed, with Fairbain slightly behind her, one
hand grasping her arm, the other clinched, his jaw set pugnaciously.
Facing these two was Waite, and a heavily built man wearing a brown beard,
closely trimmed.

"You'd better acknowledge it," Waite snapped out, with a quick glance at
the newcomer. "It will make it all the easier for you. I tell you this is
the sheriff, and we've got you both dead to rights."

"But," she urged, "why should I be arrested? I have done nothing."

"You're an adventuress--a damn adventuress--Hawley's mistress, probably--

"Now, see here, Waite," and Fairbain swung himself forward, "you drop
that. Miss Maclaire is my friend, and if you say another word I'll smash
you, sheriff or no sheriff."

Waite glared at him.

"You old fool," he snorted, "what have you got to do with this?"

"I've got this to do with it, you'll find--the woman is to be treated with
respect or I'll blow your damned obstinate head off."

The sheriff laid his hand on Waite's shoulder.

"Come," he said, firmly, "this is no way to get at it. We want to know
certain facts, and then we can proceed lawfully. Let me question the

The two older men still faced one another belligerently, but Keith saw
Christie draw the doctor back from between her and the sheriff.

"You may ask me anything you please," she announced, quietly. "I am sure
these gentlemen will not fight here in my room."

"Very well, Miss Maclaire. It will require only a moment. How long have
you known this man Hawley?"

"Merely a few days--since I arrived in Sheridan."

"But you were in communication with him before that?"

The pleasant voice and quiet demeanor of the sheriff seemed to yield the
girl confidence and courage.

"Yes, he had written me two or three letters."

"You met him here then by appointment?"

"He was to come to Sheridan, and explain to me more fully what his letters
had only hinted at."

"You possessed no previous knowledge of his purpose?"

"Only the barest outline--details were given me later."

"Will you tell us briefly exactly what Hawley told you?"

The girl's bewildered eyes wandered from face to face, then returned to
the waiting sheriff.

"May--may I sit down?" she asked.

"Most certainly; and don't be afraid, for really we wish to be your

She sank down into the chair, and even Keith could see how her slender
form trembled. There was a moment's silence.

"Believe me, gentlemen," she began, falteringly, "if there is any fraud,
any conspiracy, I have borne no conscious part in it. Mr. Hawley came to
me saying a dying man had left with him certain papers, naming one,
Phyllis Gale, as heiress to a very large estate in North Carolina, left by
her grandfather in trust. He said the girl had been taken West, when
scarcely two years old, by her father in a fit of drunken rage, and then
deserted by him in St. Louis."

"You--you saw the papers?" Waite broke in.

"Yes, those that Hawley had; he gave them to me to keep for him." She
crossed to her trunk, and came back, a manilla envelope in her hand. Waite
opened it hastily, running his eyes over the contents.

"The infernal scoundrel!" he exclaimed, hotly. "These were stolen from me
at Carson City."

"Let me see them." The sheriff ran them over, merely glancing at the

"Just as you represented, Waite," he said, slowly. "A copy of the will,
your commission as guardian, and memoranda of identification. Well, Miss
Maclaire, how did you happen to be so easily convinced that you were the
lost girl?"

"Mr. Hawley brought me a picture which he said was of this girl's half-
sister; the resemblance was most startling. This, with the fact that I
have never known either father or mother or my real name, and that my
earlier life was passed in St. Louis, sufficed to make me believe he must
be right."

"You--you--" Waite choked, leaning forward.

"You don't know your real name?"

"No, I do not," her lips barely forming the words. "The woman who brought
me up never told me."

"Who--who was the woman?"

"A Mrs. Raymond--Sue Raymond--she was on the stage, and died in Texas--San
Antonio, I think."

Waite swore audibly, his eyes never once deserting the girl's face.

"Hawley told you to say that?"

"No, he did not," she protested warmly. "It was never even mentioned
between us--at least, not Sue Raymond's name. What difference can that

He stepped forward, one hand flung out, and Fairbain sprang forward
instantly between them, mistaking the action.

"Hands off there, Waite," he commanded sternly. "Whatever she says goes."

"You blundering old idiot," the other exploded. "I'm not going to hurt
her; stand aside, will you!"

He reached the startled girl, thrust aside the dark hair combed low over
the neck, swung her about toward the light, and stared at a birthmark
behind her ear. No one spoke, old Waite seemingly stricken dumb, the woman
shrinking away from him as though she feared he was crazed.

"What is it?" asked the sheriff, sternly.

Slowly Waite turned about and faced him, running the sleeve of his coat
across his eyes. He appeared dazed, confounded.

"My God, it's all right," he said, with a choke in the throat. "She's--
she's the girl."

Christie stared at him, her lips parted, unable to grasp what it all

"You mean I--I am actually Phyllis Gale? That--that there is no mistake?"

He nodded, not yet able to put It more clearly into words. She swayed as
though about to faint, and Fairbain caught her, but she slipped through
his arms, and fell upon her knees, her face buried in her hands upon the

"Oh, thank God," she sobbed, "thank God! I know who I am! I know who I

Chapter XXXI

The Search for the Missing

The note of unrestrained joy of relief in the woman's voice rang through
the room, stilling all else, and causing those who heard to forget for an
instant the sterner purpose of their gathering. Fairbain bent over her,
like a fat guardian angel, patting her shoulder, her eyes so blurred with
tears as to be practically sightless, yet still turned questioningly upon
Waite. The sheriff was first to recover speech, and a sense of duty.

"Then this lets Miss Maclaire out of the conspiracy charge," he said,
gravely, "but it doesn't make it any brighter for Hawley so far as I can
see--there's a robbery charge against him if nothing else. Any one here
know where the fellow is?"

For a moment no one answered, although Keith took a step forward, reminded
instantly of Hope's predicament. Before he could speak, however, Christie
looked up, with swift gesture pushing back her loosened hair.

"He was to have met me at the theatre to-night," she said, her voice
trembling, "but was not there when I came out; he--he said he had
important news for me."

"And failed to show up--did he send no message?"

"Doctor Fairbain was waiting for me instead. He said that Mr. Hawley was
called suddenly out of town."

The eyes of the sheriff turned to Fairbain, whose face grew redder than
usual, as he shifted his gaze toward Keith.

"That was a lie," he confessed, lamely. "I--I was told to say that."

"Just a moment, Sheriff," and Keith stood before them, his voice clear and
convincing. "My name is Keith, and I have unavoidably been mixed up in
this affair from the beginning. Just now I can relieve the doctor of his
embarrassment. Miss Hope Waite and I have been associated together in an
effort to solve this mystery. This evening, taking advantage of the
remarkable resemblance existing between herself and Miss Maclaire, Miss
Hope decided upon a mask--"

"What's that," Waite broke in excitedly. "Is Hope here?"

"Yes, has been for a week; we've had all the police force of Sheridan
hunting you."

The old man stared at the speaker, open-mouthed, and muttered something
about Fort Hays, but Keith, paying little attention to him, hurried on
with his story.

"As I say, she decided upon impersonating Christie here, hoping in this
way to learn more regarding Hawley's plans. We had discovered that the two
were to meet after the evening performance at the stage door of the
Trocadero. I escorted Hope there, dressed as near like Miss Maclaire as
possible, and left her inside the vestibule waiting for 'Black Bart' to
appear. At the head of the alley I ran into Fairbain, told him something
of the circumstances, and persuaded him to escort Miss Christie back to
the hotel. He was not very hard to persuade. Well, Hawley came, and Hope
met him; they went out of the alley-way together arm in arm, talking
pleasantly, and turned this way toward the hotel. The doctor and I both
saw and heard them. I was delayed not to exceed two minutes, speaking a
final word to Fairbain, and when I reached the street they had
disappeared. I have hunted them everywhere without finding a trace--I have
even been through the resorts. She has not returned to the hotel, and I
burst in upon you here hoping that Miss Maclaire might have some

She shook her head, and Waite, glaring impotently at the two of them,
swore sharply.

"Good God, man! my girl! Hope, alone with that damn villain. Come on,
Sheriff; we've got to find her. Wait though!" and he strode almost
menacingly across the room. "First, I want to know who the devil you are?"

Keith straightened up, looking directly into the fierce questioning eyes.

"I have told you my name--Jack Keith," he replied, quietly. "Doctor
Fairbain knows something of me, but for your further information I will
add that when we met before I was Captain Keith, Third Virginia Cavalry,
and bearing despatches from Longstreet to Stonewall Jackson."

The gruff old soldier, half-crazed by the news of his daughter's peril,
the gleam of his eyes still revealing uncontrolled temper, stared at the
younger face fronting him; then slowly he held out his hand.

"Keith--Keith," he repeated, as though bringing back the name with an
effort. "By God, that's so--old Jefferson Keith's boy--killed at Antietam.
And you know Hope?"

"Yes, General."

He looked about as though dazed, and the sheriff broke in not unkindly.

"Well, Waite, if we are going to search for your daughter we better be at
it. Come on, all of you; Miss Maclaire will be safe enough here alone."

He took hold of Keith's arm, questioning him briefly as they passed down
the hall. On the stairs the latter took his turn, still confused by what
he had just heard.

"Who is Miss Maclaire?" he asked.

"Phyllis Gale."

"Of course, but who is Phyllis Gale? What has she to do with General
Waite? His daughter has told me she never heard of any one by that name."

"Well, Keith, the old man has never told me very much; he's pretty close-
mouthed, except for swearing, but I've read his papers, and picked up a
point or two. I reckon the daughter, Miss Hope, maybe never heard a word
about it, but the boy--the one that was shot--must have stumbled onto the
story and repeated it to Hawley. That's what set that fellow going. It
seems Mrs. Waite's maiden name was Pierpont, and when she was seventeen
years old she was married to the son of a rich North Carolina planter. The
fellow was a drunken, dissolute good-for-nothing. They had a daughter
born--this Phyllis--and when the child was three years old her father, in
a fit of drunken rage, ran away, and to spite his wife took the little
girl with him. All efforts to trace them failed, and the mother finally
secured a divorce and, two years later, married Willis Waite. Waite, of
course, knew these facts, but probably they were never told to the
children. When the father of Mrs. Waite's first husband died, he left all
his large property to his grandchild, providing she could be found and
identified within a certain time, failing which the property was to be
distributed among certain designated charities. Waite was named sole
administrator. Well, the old man took as much interest in it as though it
was his own girl, but made mighty little progress. He did discover that
the father had taken the child to St. Louis and left her there with a
woman named Raymond, but after the woman died the girl completely

"Then Miss Maclaire is Hope Waite's half-sister?"

"That's the way it looks now."

"And Hawley merely happened to stumble on to the right party?"

"Sure; it's clear enough how that came about. The boy told him about the
lost heiress his father was searching after, and showed him his sister's
picture. 'Black Bart' instantly recognized her resemblance to Christie
Maclaire, and thought he saw a good chance for some easy money. He needed
the papers, however, to ascertain exactly the terms of the will, and what
would be necessary for the identification. He never intended to go into
court, but hoped to either get Waite out of the way, or else convince him
that Christie was the girl, relying on her gratitude for his profits. When
Waite played into his hands by coming to Carson City, the chance was too
good to be lost. I'm not sure he meant to kill him, but he did mean to
have those papers at any cost. Probably you know the rest--the girl was
easy, because she was so ignorant of her parentage, and nothing prevented
Hawley from winning except that Waite got mad and decided to fight. That
knocked over the whole thing."

They were outside now, and the first touch of the cool night air, the
first glance up and down the noisy street, brought Keith to himself, his
mind ready to grapple with the problem of Hope's disappearance. It seemed
to him he had already looked everywhere, yet there was nothing to do
except to continue the search, only more systematically. The sheriff
assumed control--clear headed, and accustomed to that sort of thing--
calling in Hickock and his deputies to assist, and fairly combing the town
from one end to the other. Not a rat could have slipped unobserved through
the net he dragged down that long street, or its intersecting alleys--but
it was without result; nowhere was there found a trace of either the
gambler or his companion.

They dug into saloons, bagnios, dance-halls, searching back rooms and
questioning inmates; they routed out every occupant of the hotel, invaded
boarding houses, and explored shacks and tents, indifferent to the
protests of those disturbed,--but without result. They found several who
knew Hawley, others who had seen the two together passing by the lighted
windows of the Trocadero, but beyond that--nothing. Convinced, at last,
that the parties sought were not alive in Sheridan, and beginning to fear
the worst, the searchers separated, and began spreading forth over the
black surrounding prairie, and by the light of lanterns seeking any
semblance of trail. There was no lack of volunteers for this work, but it
was daylight before the slightest clue presented itself. Keith, with the
sheriff and two or three others, had groped their way outward until, with
the first flush of dawn, they found themselves at the opening of a small
rocky ravine, near the foot of "Boots Hill." Peering down into its still
shadowed depths, they discerned what appeared like a body lying there
motionless. Keith sprang down beside it, and turned the rigid form over
until the dead face was revealed in the wan light--it was that of the red
moustached Scott. He staggered back at the recognition, barely able to

"Here, Sheriff! This is one of Hawley's men!"

The sheriff was bending instantly above the corpse, searching for the

"You know the fellow?"

"Yes, his name was Scott."

"Well, he's been dead some hours, at least six I should say; shot just
above the eye, and good Heavens! look here, Keith, at the size of this
bullet wound; that's no man's gun in this country--no more than a '32'
I'd say."

"Miss Waite had a small revolver. She must have shot the fellow. But why
did they leave the body here to be discovered?"

The sheriff arose to his feet, prowling about in the brightening glow of
the dawn.

"They were in a hurry to get away, and knew he wouldn't be found before
morning. A six hours' start means a good deal. They did drag him back out
of sight--look here. This was where the struggle took place, and here is
where the man fell," tracing it out upon the ground. "The girl put up a
stiff fight, too--see where they dragged her up the path. From the
footprints there must have been half a dozen in the party. Get back out of
the way, Sims, while I follow their trail."

It was plain enough, now they had daylight to assist them, and led around
the edge of the hill. A hundred feet away they came to where horses had
been standing, the trampled sod evidencing they must have been there for
some considerable time. Keith and the sheriff circled out until they
finally struck the trail of the party, which led forth southwest across
the prairie.

"Seven horses, one being led light," said the former. "That was Scott's,

"That's the whole story," replied the sheriff, staring off toward the bare
horizon, "and the cusses have at least six hours the start with fresh
horses." He turned around. "Well, boys, that takes 'em out of my baliwick,
I reckon. Some of the rest of you will have to run that gang down."

Chapter XXXII

Fairbain and Christie

Dr. Fairbain had originally joined the searching party, fully as eager as
Keith himself to run down the renegade Hawley, but after an hour of
resultless effort, his entire thought shifted to the woman they had left
alone at the hotel. He could not, as yet, fully grasp the situation, but
he remained loyal to the one overpowering truth that he loved Christie
Maclaire. Fairbain's nature was rough, original, yet loyal to the core. He
had lived all his life long in army camps, and upon the frontier, and his
code of honor was extremely simple. It never once occurred to him that
Christie's profession was not of the highest, or that her life and
associations in any way unfitted her for the future. To his mind she was
the one and only woman. His last memory of her, as the little party of men
filed out of that room, haunted him until he finally dropped out of the
search, and drifted back toward the hotel.

It was a late hour, yet it was hardly likely the woman had retired. Her
excitement, her interest in the pursuit, would surely prevent that;
moreover, he was certain he saw a light still burning in her room, as he
looked up from the black street below. Nevertheless he hesitated,
uncertain of his reception. Bluff, emphatic, never afraid to face a man in
his life, his heart now beat fiercely as he endeavored to muster the
necessary courage. Far down the dark street some roysterer fired a shot,
and sudden fear lest he might be sought after professionally sent the
doctor hurriedly within, and up the stairs. He stood, just outside her
door, quaking like a child, the perspiration beading his forehead, but a
light streamed through the transom, and he could plainly hear movements
within. At last, in a sudden spasm of courage, he knocked softly. Even in
that noisy spot she heard instantly, opening the door without hesitation,
and standing fully dressed within. She was no longer a discouraged,
sobbing girl, but an aroused, intent woman, into whose pathetic, lonely
life there had come a new hope. She appeared younger, fairer, with the
light shimmering in her hair and her eyes smiling welcome.

"Oh, Doctor," and her hands were thrust out towards him, "I am glad you
have come. Somehow, I thought you would, and I have wanted so to talk to
someone--to you."

"To me! Do you really mean that, Miss Christie?"

"Yes, I really mean that, you great bear of a man," and the girl laughed
lightly, dragging him into the room, and closing the door. "Why, who else
could I expect to come to-night? You were the only one really good to me.
You--you acted as if you believed in me all the time--"

"I did, Christie; you bet I did," broke in the delighted doctor, every
nerve tingling. "I'd 'a' cleaned out that whole gang if you'd only said
so, but I reckon now it was better to let them tell all they knew. It was
like a thunder storm clearing the atmosphere."

"Oh, it was, indeed! Now I know who I am--who I am! Isn't that simply
glorious? Sit down, Doctor Fairbain, there in the big chair where I can
see your face. I want to talk, talk, talk; I want to ask questions, a
thousand questions; but it wouldn't do any good to ask them of you, would
it? You don't know anything about my family, do you?"

"Not very much, I am afraid, only that you have got an almighty pretty
half-sister," admitted the man, emphatically, "and old Waite possesses the
vilest temper ever given a human being. He's no blood kin to you, though."

"No, but he is awfully good underneath, isn't he?"

"Got a heart of pure gold, old Waite. Why, I've seen him cry like a baby
over one of his men that got hurt."

"Have you known him, then, for a long while?"

"Ever since the Spring of '61. I was brigaded with him all through the
war, and had to cut a bullet or so out of his hide before it ended. If
there was ever a fight, Willis Waite was sure to get his share. He could
swear some then, but he's improved since, and I reckon now he could likely
claim the championship."

"Did--did you know my mother also?" and Christie leaned forward, her eyes
suddenly grown misty. "I haven't even the slightest memory of her."

The doctor's heart was tender, and he was swift to respond, reaching forth
and grasping the hand nearest him. He had made love before, yet somehow
this was different; he felt half afraid of this woman, and it was a new
sensation altogether, and not unpleasant.

"I saw her often enough in those days, but not since. She was frequently
in camp, a very sweet-faced woman; you have her eyes and hair, as I
remember. Waite ought to have recognized you at first sight. By Heavens!
that was what made me so internally mad, the mulish obstinacy of the old
fool. Your mother used to come to the hospital tent, too; one of the best
nurses I ever saw. I thought she was a beauty then, but she's some older
by this time," he paused regretfully. "You see, I'm no spring chicken,

Her eyes were upon his face, a slight flush showing in either cheek, and
she made no effort to withdraw her imprisoned hand.

"You are just a nice age," with firm conviction. "Boys are tiresome, and I
think a little gray in the hair is an improvement. Oh, you mustn't imagine
I say this just to please you--I have always thought so, since--well,
since I grew up. Besides, fleshy men generally look young, because they
are so good natured, perhaps. How old are you, Doctor?"

"It isn't the gray hairs I mind, either," he admitted hesitatingly, "but
I'm too darned bald-headed. Oh, I ain't so old, for I was only thirty-five
when the war broke out. I was so thin then I could hardly cast a shadow.
I've changed some since," casting his eyes admiringly downward, "and got
quite a figure. I was forty-three last month."

"That isn't old; that's just right."

"I've been afraid you looked on me as being an old fogy!"

"I should say not," indignantly. "Why should you ever think that?"

"Well, there were so many young fellows hanging about."


"Oh, Keith, and Hawley, and that bunch of officers from the fort; you
never had any time to give me."

She laughed again, her fingers tightening in their clasp on his hand.

"Why, how foolish; Hawley is older than you are, and I was only playing
with Keith. Surely you must know that now. And as to the officers, they
were just fun. You see, in my profession, one has to be awfully nice to

"But didn't you really care for Hawley?" he insisted, bluntly probing for

"He--he interested me," admitted the girl, hesitatingly, her eyes
darkening with sudden anger. "He lied and I believed him--I would have
believed any one who came with such a story. Oh, Dr. Fairbain," and she
clung to him now eagerly, "you cannot realize how hungry I have been for
what he brought me. I wanted so to know the truth of my birth. Oh, I hated
this life!" She flung her disengaged hand into the air, with a gesture
expressive of disgust. "I was crazy to get away from it. That was what
made the man look good to me--he--he promised so much. You will believe
me, won't you? Oh, you must; I am going to make you. I am a singer in
music halls; I was brought up to that life from a little girl, and of
course, I know what you Western men think of us as a class. Hawley showed
it in his whole manner toward me, and I resented it; just for that, deep
down in my heart, I hated him. I know it now, now that I really understand
his purpose; but some way, when I was with him he seemed to fascinate me,
to make me do just as he willed. But you have never been that way; you--
you have acted as though I was somebody--somebody nice, and not just a
music-hall singer. Perhaps it's just your way, and maybe, deep down you
don't think I'm any better than the others do, but--but I want you to
think I am, and I am going to tell you the truth, and you must believe me
--I am a good girl."

"Great God! of course you are," he blurted out. "Don't you suppose I know?
That isn't what has been bothering me, lassie. Why, I'd 'a' fought any
buck who'd 'a' sneered at you. What I wanted to know was, whether or not
you really cared for any of those duffers. Can you tell me that,

She lifted her eyes to his face, her lips parted.

"I can answer any thing you ask."

"And you do not care for them?"


He drew his breath sharply, his round face rosy.

"Then you have got to listen to me, for I'm deadly in earnest. I'm an old,
rough, bald-headed fool that don't know much about women,--I never thought
before I'd ever want to,--but you can bet on one thing, I'm square.
Anybody in this town will tell you I'm square. They'll tell you that
whatever I say goes. I've never run around much with women; somehow I
never exactly liked the kind I've come up against, and maybe they didn't
feel any particular interest in me. I didn't cut much shine as a ladies'
man, but, I reckon now, it's only because the right one hadn't happened
along. She is here now, though, all right, and I knew it the very first
time I set eyes on her. Oh, you roped and tied me all right the first
throw. Maybe I did get you and that half-sister mixed up a bit, but just
the same you were the one I really wanted. Hope's all right; she's a
mighty fine girl, but you are the one for me, Christie. Could you--could
you care for such a duffer as I am?"

Her lips were smiling and so were her eyes, but it was a pleading smile.

"I--I don't think it would be so very hard," she admitted, "not if you
really wanted me to."

"You know what I mean--that I love you,--wish you to be my wife?"

"I supposed that was it--that--that you wanted me."

"Yes, and--and you will love me?"

Her head drooped slowly, so slowly he did not realize the significance of
the action, until her lips touched his hand.

"I do," she said; "you are the best man in the world."

Fairbain could not move, could not seem to realize what it all meant. The
outcome had been so sudden, so surprising, that all power of expression
deserted him. In bewilderment he lifted her face, and looked into her
eyes. Perhaps she realized--with the swift intuition of a clever woman--
the man's perplexity, for instantly she led his mind to other things.

"But let us not talk of ourselves any more, to-night. There is so much I
wish to know; so much that ought to be done." She sprang to her feet.
"Why, it is almost shameful for us to stay here, selfishly happy, while
others are in such trouble. Have they discovered Hope?"

"No; we scoured the whole town and found no trace. Now they are outside on
the prairie, but there can be little chance of their picking up a trail
before daylight."

"And Hawley?"

"He has vanished also; without doubt they are together. What do you
suppose he can want of her? How do you imagine he ever got her to go with
him? She isn't that sort of a girl."

She shook her head, shivering a little.

"He must have mistaken her for me--perhaps has not even yet discovered his
mistake. But what it all means, or how he gained her consent to go with
him, I cannot conceive."

She stood with hands clasped, staring out the window.

"There is a little light showing already," she exclaimed, pointing. "See,
yonder. Oh, I trust they will find her alive, and unhurt. That man, I
believe, is capable of any crime. But couldn't you be of some help? Why
should you remain here with me? I am in no danger."

"You really wish me to go, Christie?"

"Not that way--not that way," and she turned impulsively, with hands
outstretched. "Of course I want you here with me, but I want you to help
bring Hope back."

He drew her to him, supremely happy now, every feeling of embarrassment
lost in complete certainty of possession.

"And I will," he said solemnly. "Wherever they may have gone I shall
follow. I am going now, dear, and when I come back you'll be glad to see

"Shall I?" her eyes uplifted to his own, and swimming in tears. "I will be
the happiest girl in all the world, I reckon. Oh, what a night this has
been! What a wonderful night! It has given me a name, a mother, and the
man I love."

He kissed her, not in passion, but in simple tenderness, and as he turned
away she sank upon her knees at the window, with head bowed upon the sill.
At the door he paused, and looked back, and she turned, and smiled at him.
Then he went out, and she knelt there silently, gazing forth into the
dawn, her eyes blurred with tears--facing a new day, and a new life.

Chapter XXXIII

Following the Trail

The withdrawal of the sheriff merely stimulated Keith to greater
activity. It was clearly evident the fugitives were endeavoring with all
rapidity possible to get beyond where the hand of law could reach them--
their trail striking directly across the plains into the barren southwest
was proof of this purpose. Yet it was scarcely likely they would proceed
very far in that direction, as such a course would bring them straight
into the heart of the Indian country, into greater danger than that from
which they fled. Keith felt no doubt that Hawley intended making for
Carson City, where he could securely hide the girl, and where he possessed
friends to rally to his defence, even an influence over the officers of
the law. The one thing which puzzled him most was the man's object in
attempting so desperate a venture. Did he know his prisoner was Hope
Waite? or did he still suppose he was running off with Christie Maclaire?
Could some rumor of Waite's appeal to the courts have reached the gambler,
frightened him, and caused him to attempt this desperate effort at escape?
and did he bear Miss Maclaire with him, hoping thus to keep her safely
concealed until he was better prepared to come out in open fight? If this
was the actual state of affairs then it would account for much otherwise
hard to explain. The actress would probably not have been missed, or, at
least, seriously sought after, until she failed to appear at the theatre
the following evening. This delay would give the fugitives a start of
twenty hours, or even more, and practically assure their safety. Besides,
in the light of Waite's application to the sheriff for assistance, it was
comparatively easy to conceive of a valid reason why Hawley should vanish,
and desire, likewise, to take Miss Maclaire with him. But there was no
apparent occasion for his forcible abduction of Hope. Of course, he might
have done so from a suddenly aroused fit of anger at some discovery the
girl had made, yet everything pointed rather to a deliberate plan. Both
horses and men were certainly waiting there under orders, Hawley's
adherents in charge, and every arrangement perfected in advance. Clearly
enough, the gambler had planned it all out before he ever went to the
Trocadero--no doubt the completion of these final arrangements was what
delayed his appearance at the hotel. If this was all true, then it must
have been Christie, and not Hope, he purposed bearing away with him, and
the latter was merely a victim of her masquerade.

What would result when the man discovered his mistake? Such a discovery
could not be delayed long, although the girl was quick-witted, and would
surely realize that her personal safety depended upon keeping up the
deception to the last possible moment. Yet the discovery must finally
occur, and there was no guessing what form Hawley's rage would assume when
he found himself baffled, and all his plans for a fortune overturned.
Keith fully realized Hope's peril, and his own helplessness to serve her
in this emergency was agony. As they hurried back to the town, he briefly
reviewed these conclusions with Waite and Fairbain, all alike agreeing
there was nothing remaining for them to do except to take up the trail.
The fugitives had already gained too great an advantage to be overhauled,
but they might be traced to whatever point they were heading for. In spite
of the start being so far to the west, Keith was firmly convinced that
their destination would prove to be Carson City.

Procuring horses at the corral, their forces augmented by two volunteers--
both men of experience--Keith, Waite, Fairbain, and Neb departed without
delay, not even pausing to eat but taking the necessary food with them.
The sun had barely risen when they took up the trail, Keith, and a man
named Bristoe, slightly in advance, their keen eyes marking every slight
sign left for guidance across the bare plain. It was a comparatively easy
trail to follow, leading directly into the southwest, the pony tracks
cutting into the sod as though the reckless riders had bunched together,
their horses trotting rapidly. Evidently no attempt had been made at
concealment, and this served to convince the pursuers that Hawley still
believed his captive to be Miss Maclaire, and that her disappearance would
not be suspected until after nightfall. In that case the trail could not
be discovered before the following morning, and with such a start, pursuit
would be useless. Tireless, steadily, scarcely speaking except upon the
business in hand, the pursuers pressed forward at an easy trot, Keith, in
spite of intense anxiety, with the remembrance of old cavalry days to
guide him, insisting upon sparing the horses as much as possible. This was
to be a stern chase and a long one, and it was impossible to tell when
they could procure remounts. The constant swerving of the trail westward
seemed to shatter his earlier theory, and, brought him greater uneasiness.
Finally he spoke of it to the old plainsman beside him.

"What do you suppose those fellows are heading so far west for, Ben? They
are taking a big risk of running into hostiles."

"Oh, I don't know," returned the other gravely, lifting his eyes to the
far-off sky line. "I reckon from the news thet come in last night from
Hays, thar ain't no Injuns a rangin' thet way jist now. They're too blame
busy out on the Arickaree. Maybe them fellers heerd the same story, an'
thet's what makes 'em so bold."

"What story? I've heard nothing."

"Why, it's like this, Cap," drawling out the words, "leastways, thet's how
it come inter Sheridan; 'Sandy' Forsythe an' his outfit, mostly plainsmen,
started a while ago across Solomon River an' down Beaver Crick, headin'
fer Fort Wallace. Over on the Arickaree, the whole damned Injun outfit
jumped 'em. From all I heerd, thar must a bin nigh onto three thousan' o'
the varmints, droppin' on 'em all at oncet, hell-bent-fer-election, with
ol' Roman Nose a leadin' 'em. It was shore a good fight, fer the scouts
got onto an island an' stopped the bucks. Two of the fellers got through
to Wallace yist'day, an' a courier brought the news in ter Hays. The
Injuns had them boys cooped up thar fer eight days before them fellers got
out, an' I reckon it'll be two or three days more 'fore the nigger sogers
they sent out ter help ever git thar. So thar won't be no Injuns 'long
this route we're travellin', fer the whole kit an' caboodle are up thar
yit after 'Sandy.'"

"And you suppose Hawley knew about this?"

"Why not, Cap? He was hangin' 'round till after ten o'clock las' night,
an' it was all over town by then. 'Tain't likely he's got an outfit 'long
with him thet's lost any Injuns. I don't know whar they're bound, no mor'n
you do, but I reckon they're reasonably sure they've got a clar road."

They pulled up on the banks of a small stream to water their horses, and
ate hastily. The trail led directly across, and with only the slightest
possible delay they forded the shallow water, and mounted the opposite
bank. A hundred yards farther on, Bristoe reined up suddenly, pointing
down at the trail.

"One hoss left the bunch here," he declared positively. Keith swung
himself out of the saddle, and bent over to study the tracks. There was no
doubting the evidence--a single horse--the only one shod in the bunch--
with a rider on its back, judging from the deep imprint of the hoofs, had
swerved sharply to the left of the main body, heading directly into the
southeast. The plainsman ran forward for a hundred yards to assure himself
the man had not circled back; at that point the animal had been spurred
into a lope. Keith rejoined the others.

"Must have been about daylight they reached here," he said, picking up--
his dangling rein, and looking into the questioning faces about him. "The
fellow that rode out yonder alone was heading straight toward Carson City.
He is going for fresh horses, I figure it, and will rejoin the bunch some
place down on the Arkansas. The others intend to keep farther west, where
they won't be seen. What do you say, Ben?"

"Thet's the way it looms up ter me, Cap; most likely 'twas the boss

"Well, whoever it was, the girl is still with the others, and their trail
is the easiest to follow. We'll keep after them."

They pushed on hour after hour, as long as day-light lasted or they could
perceive the faintest trace to follow. Already half-convinced that he knew
the ultimate destination of the fugitives, Keith yet dare not venture on
pressing forward during the night, thus possibly losing the trail and
being compelled to retrace their steps. It was better to proceed slow and
sure. Besides, judging from the condition of their own horses, the pursued
would be compelled to halt somewhere to rest their stock also. Their trail
even revealed the fact that they were already travelling far less rapidly
than at first, although evidently making every effort to cover the
greatest possible distance before stopping. Just as the dusk shut in close
about them they rode down into the valley of Shawnee Fork, and discovered
signs of a recent camp at the edge of the stream. Here, apparently,
judging from the camp-fire ashes, and the trampled grass along the Fork,
the party must have halted for several hours. By lighting matches Keith
and Bristoe discerned where some among them had laid down to sleep, and,
through various signs, decided they must have again departed some five or
six hours previous, one of their horses limping as if lame. The tired
pursuers went into camp at the same spot, but without venturing to light
any fire, merely snatching a cold bite, and dropping off to sleep with
heads pillowed upon their saddles.

They were upon the trail again with the first dimness of the gray dawn,
wading the waters of the Fork, and striking forth across the dull level of
brown prairie and white alkali toward the Arkansas. They saw nothing all
day moving in that wide vista about them, but rode steadily, scarcely
exchanging a word, determined, grim, never swerving a yard from the faint
trail. The pursued were moving slower, hampered, no doubt, by their lame
horse, but were still well in advance. Moreover, the strain of the saddle
was already beginning to tell severely on Waite, weakened somewhat by
years, and the pursuers were compelled to halt oftener on his account. The
end of the second day found them approaching the broken land bordering the
Arkansas valley, and just before nightfall they picked up a lame horse,
evidently discarded by the party ahead.

By this time Keith had reached a definite decision as to his course. If
the fugitives received a fresh relay of horses down there somewhere, and
crossed the Arkansas, he felt positively sure as to their destination. But
it would be useless pushing on after them in the present shape of his
party--their horses worn out, and Waite reeling giddily in the saddle. If
Hawley's outfit crossed the upper ford, toward which they were evidently
heading, and struck through the sand hills, then they were making for the
refuge of that lone cabin on Salt Fork. Should this prove true, then it
was probable the gambler had not even yet discovered the identity of Hope,
for if he had, he would scarcely venture upon taking her there, knowing
that Keith would naturally suspect the spot. But Keith would not be likely
to personally take up the trail in search for Christie Maclaire. It must
have been Hawley then who had left the party and ridden east, and up to
that time he had not found out his mistake. Yet if he brought out the
fresh animals the chances were that Hope's identity would be revealed.
Bristoe, who had turned aside to examine the straying horse, came trotting

"Belonged to their outfit all right, Cap," he reported, "carries the
double cross brand and that shebang is upon the Smoky; saddle galls still

Waite was now suffering so acutely they were obliged to halt before
gaining sight of the river, finding, fortunately, a water-hole fed by a
spring. As soon as the sick man could be made comfortable, Keith gave to
the others his conclusions, and listened to what they had to say. Bristoe
favored clinging to the trail even though they must travel slowly, but
Fairbain insisted that Waite must be taken to some town where he could be
given necessary care. Keith finally decided the matter.

"None can be more anxious to reach those fellows than I am," he declared,
"but I know that country out south, and we'll never get through to the
Salt Fork without fresh horses. Besides, as the doctor says, we've got to
take care of Waite. If we find things as I expect we'll ride for Carson
City, and re-outfit there. What's more, we won't lose much time--it's a
shorter ride from there to the cabin than from here."

By morning the General was able to sit his saddle again, and leaving him
with Neb to follow slowly, the others spurred forward, discovered an
outlet through the bluff into the valley, and crossed the Santa Fe Trail.
It was not easy to discover where those in advance had passed this point,
but they found evidence of a late camp in a little grove of cottonwoods
beside the river. There were traces of two trails leading to the spot, one
being that of the same five horses they had been following so long, the
other not so easily read, as it had been traversed in both directions, the
different hoof marks obliterating each other. Bristoe, creeping about on
hands and knees, studied the signs with the eyes of an Indian.

"You kin see the diff'rence yere whar the ground is soft, Cap," he said,
pointing to some tracks plainer than the others. "This yere hoss had a
rider, but the rest of 'em was led; thet's why they've bungled up ther
trail so. An' it wa'n't ther same bunch thet went back east what come from
thar--see thet split hoof! thar ain't no split hoof p'inting ther other
way--but yere is the mark of the critter thet puts her foot down so fur
outside thet we've been a trailin' from Sheridan, an' she's p'inting east,
an' being led. Now, let's see whar the bunch went from yere with thet
split hoof."

This was not so easily accomplished owing to the nature of the ground, but
at last the searchers stumbled onto tracks close in under the bank, and
one of these revealed the split hoof.

"That makes it clear, Ben," exclaimed Keith, decidedly, staring out across
the river at the white sandhills. "They have kept in the edge of the
water, making for the ford, which is yonder at the bend. They are out in
the sand desert by this time riding for the Salt Fork. Whoever he was, the
fellow brought them five horses, and the five old ones were taken east
again on the trail. The girl is still with the party, and we'll go into
Carson City and reoutfit."

Chapter XXXIV

Again at the Cabin

They were two weary days reaching Carson City, travelling along the open
trail yet meeting with no one, not even a mail coach passing them.
Evidently the Indians were so troublesome as to interrupt all traffic with
Santa Fe and the more western forts. The slowness of their progress was on
account of the General, whose condition became worse in spite of
Fairbain's assiduous attentions. With no medicine the doctor could do but
little to relieve the sufferings of the older man, although he declared
that his illness was not a serious one, and would yield quickly to proper
medical treatment. They constructed a rude travois from limbs of the
cottonwood, and securely strapped him thereon, one man leading the horse,
while the doctor tramped behind.

Keith, fretting more and more over this necessary delay, and now obsessed
with the thought that Hawley must have rejoined his party on the Arkansas
and gone south with them, finally broke away from the others and rode
ahead, to gather together the necessary horses and supplies in advance of
their arrival. He could not drive from his mind the remembrance of the
gambler's attempted familiarity with Hope, when he had her, as he then
supposed, safe in his power once before in that lonely cabin on the Salt
Fork. Now, angry with baffled ambition, and a victim of her trickery,
there was no guessing to what extremes the desperado might resort. The
possibilities of such a situation made the slightest delay in rescue an
agony almost unbearable. Reaching Carson City, and perfectly reckless as
to his own safety there from arrest, the plainsman lost no time in
perfecting arrangements for pushing forward. Horses and provisions were
procured, and he very fortunately discovered in town two cowboys belonging
to the "Bar X" outfit, their work there accomplished and about ready to
return to, the ranch on the Canadian, who gladly allied themselves with
his party, looking forward to the possibilities of a fight with keen
anticipation. Keith was more than ever delighted with adding these to his
outfit, when, on the final arrival of the others, the extra man brought
from Sheridan announced that he had had enough, and was going to remain
there. No efforts made revealed any knowledge of Hawley's presence in
Carson City; either he had not been there, or else his friends were very
carefully concealing the fact. The utter absence of any trace, however,
led Keith to believe that the gambler had gone elsewhere--probably to Fort
Larned--for his new outfit, and this belief left him more fully convinced
than ever of the fellow's efforts to conceal his trail.

The party escorting Waite reached the town in the evening, and in the
following gray dawn, the adventurers forded the river, and mounted on
fresh horses and fully equipped, headed forth into the sand hills. The
little company now consisted of Keith, Fairbain, who, in spite of his
rotundity of form had proven himself hard and fit, Neb, having charge of
the single pack-horse, the scout Bristoe, and the two cowboys of the "Bar
X," rough, wiry fellows, accustomed to exposure and peril. It was
emphatically a fighting outfit, and to be trusted in emergency.

They followed the cattle trail south toward the Salt Fork, as this course
would afford them a camp at the only water-hole in all that wide desert
lying between. With this certainty of water, they ventured to press their
animals to swifter pace, although the sand made travelling heavy, and the
trail itself was scarcely discernible. It was a hard, wearisome ride, hour
after hour through the same dull, dreary landscape of desolation, the hot,
remorseless sun beating down upon them, reflecting up into their blistered
faces from the hot surface of sand. There was scarcely a breath of air,
and the bodies of men and horses were bathed in perspiration. Not a cloud
hung in the blue sky; no wing of a bird broke the monotony of distance, no
living animal crept across the blazing surface of the desert. Occasionally
a distant mirage attracted the eye, making the dead reality even more
horrible by its semblance to water, yet never tempting them to stray
aside. After the first mile conversation ceased, the men riding grimly,
silently forward, intent only on covering all the distance possible. Late
that night they camped at the water-hole, sleeping as best they could,
scourged by the chill wind which swept over them and lashed grit into
exposed faces. With the first gray of dawn they swung stiffened forms into
the saddles and rode on, straight as the crow flies, for the Salt Fork.
They attained that stream at sundown, gray with sand dust, their faces
streaked from perspiration, feeling as though the sun rays had burned
their brains, with horses fairly reeling under them. According to Keith's
calculation this cattle-ford must be fully ten miles below where the cabin
sought was situated; two hours' rest, with water and food, would put both
horses and men again in condition, and the travelling was easier along the
banks of the Fork. With this in mind, cinches were loosened, the animals
turned out to graze, and the men, snatching a hasty bite, flung themselves
wearily on the ground.

All but Fairbain were asleep when Keith aroused them once more, a little
before nine, unable in his impatience to brook longer delay. Within ten
minutes horses were saddled, weapons looked to carefully, and the little
party began their advance through the darkness, moving cautiously over the
uneven ground, assisted greatly by the bright desert stars gleaming down
upon them from the cloudless sky overhead. The distance proved somewhat
less than had been anticipated, and Keith's watch was not yet at eleven,
when his eyes revealed the fact that they had reached the near vicinity of
the lonely island on which the cabin stood. Reining in his horse sharply,
he swung to the ground, the others instantly following his example,
realizing they had reached the end of the route. Hands instinctively
loosened revolvers in readiness for action, the younger of the "Bar X" men
whistling softly in an effort to appear unconcerned. Keith, with a
gesture, gathered them more closely about him.

"If Hawley is here himself," he said quietly, watching their faces in the
starlight, "he will certainly have a guard set, and there may be one
anyhow. We can't afford to take chances, for there will be five men, at
least, on the island, and possibly several more. If they are looking for
trouble they will naturally expect it to come from the north--consequently
we'll make our attack from the opposite direction, and creep in on them
under the shadow of the corral. The first thing I want to do is to locate
Miss Waite so she will be in no danger of getting hurt in the
_melee_. You boys hold your fire, until I let loose or give the
word. Now, Doctor, I want you and Neb to creep up this bank until you are
directly opposite the cabin--he'll know the spot--and lie there out of
sight until we begin the shooting. Then both sail in as fast as you can.
I'll take Bristoe and you two 'Bar X' men along with me, and when we turn
loose with our shooting irons you can all reckon the fight is on. Any of
you got questions to ask?"

No one said anything, the silence accented by the desert wind howling
mournfully in the branches of a near-by cottonwood.

"All right then, boys, don't get excited and go off half cocked; be easy
on your trigger fingers. Come along, you fellows who are travelling with

The four crossed the stream, wading to their waists in the water, their
horses left bunched on the south bank, and finally crawled out into a
bunch of mesquite. As they crept along through the darkness, whatever
doubts Keith might have previously felt regarding the presence on the
island of the party sought, were dissipated by the unmistakable noise made
by numerous horses in the corral. Slowly, testing each step as they
advanced, so no sound should betray them, the four men reached the shelter
of the stockade. The older of the "Bar X" men lifted himself by his hands,
and peered cautiously over.

"Eight hosses in thar," he announced soberly; then turned to Keith. "Say,
Jack, what do you figure this shebang to be, anyhow? You don't reckon it's
old Sanchez's outfit, do yer?"

"Likely as not, Joe, though I never saw him around here."

Joe filled his cheek with tobacco, staring about through the darkness.

"Wall, if that ol' cuss is yere now we'uns is sure in fer a fight," he
commented positively.

They rounded the corral fence on hands and knees, crawled into a bunch of
bushes somewhat to the rear of the silent, desolate-appearing cabin, and
lay down flat behind a pile of saddles, from which position they could
plainly discern the rear door. There was no movement, no evidence anywhere
that a living soul was about the place. Keith could barely distinguish
that it was Bristoe lying next to him.

"Had their camp over there in the corner of the corral when I was here
before," he said in a whisper. "Where do you suppose they can be now?"

The wary scout lifted his head, sniffing into the darkness like a pointer

"West o' ther cabin thar, out o' ther wind, most likely. I smell tobacco."

Even as the words left his lips a man came sauntering slowly around the
eastern corner, his outlines barely visible, but the red glow of a pipe
bowl showing plainly. He stopped, directly facing them, yawning sleepily,
and then turned the other corner. Another moment, and they distinctly
heard a voice:

"Hustle up thar now, Manuel, an' turn out; it's your watch; wake up, damn
yer--maybe that'll bring yer ter life."

The remedy applied to the sleeper must have been efficacious, as, an
instant later, another figure slouched into view, the new arrival rubbing
his eyes with one hand, the other clutching a short-barrelled gun. From
the high peak of his hat it was evident this new guard was a Mexican. He
walked to the corner, glanced along the east side wall toward the front of
the cabin, and then, apparently satisfied the coast was clear, started
toward the stream, shuffling along within a foot of where Keith lay flat
on the ground. A moment later the men heard him splashing softly in the
water, and Keith rolled over, his lips at Bristoe's ear.

"Slip down there; Ben," he whispered, "and quiet that fellow. I'll find
out how many are on the west side. Do the job without any noise."

He waited until the scout had disappeared like a snake, not even a
rustling leaf telling of his passage, and then silently crept forward
himself, yet with less caution, until he was able to peer about the corner
of the cabin and dimly distinguish the blanketed forms of several men
lying close in against the side wall. They rested so nearly together it
was difficult to separate them in that darkness, stars giving the only
light, but he finally determined their number at five. Five; the Mexican
would make six, and there would surely be another guard posted out in the
front--seven. But there were eight horses down there in the corral. Then
the eighth man--Hawley, without doubt--must be in the cabin. At the
thought Keith's teeth clinched, and he had to struggle to control his
passion. But no; that would never do; he must discover first exactly where
the girl was located; after that they would attend to the curs. Before
creeping back to the others, he made quick examination along the rear of
the cabin, but could find no visible point of weakness. He tried to recall
from memory the nature of the lock on that back door, but could remember
nothing except an ordinary wooden latch. If he could insert a knife into
the crack that might very easily be dislodged. He drew his hunting knife
for the attempt, and, first glancing about, perceived a man creeping
toward him. It proved to be Bristoe.

"Fixed the greaser all right, cap, and I reckon he'll be quiet for an hour
or two. Look whar he slashed me; struck a pack o' playin' keerds, er I'd a
got my ticket." The front of his blouse was cut wide open, and Keith
thought he perceived a stain of blood.

"Pricked you as it was, didn't he?"

"Opened the skin. Thought the cuss had give up, an' got careless. What's
'round to the west?"

Keith's lips closed, his hand shutting hard on the knife.

"Five, and another out in front; that leaves the eighth man inside. Bring
our fellows up closer, and post them where they can cover those fellows
asleep, while I make an effort at breaking in here."

Bristoe crawled back like a snail, and confident the others would do their
part, Keith thrust his knife blade deep into the narrow crack, and began
probing after the latch. In spite of all caution this effort caused a
slight noise, and suddenly he started back, at the sound of a woman's

"What do you want? I am armed, and will fire through the door if you do
not go away!"

His heart leaping with exultation, Keith put his lips close to the crack.

"Hope," he exclaimed as loudly as he dared. "This is Keith; open the

He could hear a little smothered cry break from her lips, and then the
sound of a bar being hastily removed. An instant, and the door opened
silently, just wide enough to permit her slender figure to slip through.
She grasped him with her hands, turning his face to the light of the
stars, and he could feel her form tremble.

"Oh, I knew you would come! I knew you would come!" she sobbed, the words
barely audible.

The man's lips set firmly, yet he held her close to him, begging her not
to break down now.

"It's all right, little girl," he said pleadingly, "we've got you safe,
but there is a fight to be attended to. Come with me; I must ask you a
question or two."

He drew her back into the fringe of bushes, placing her safely behind the
stack of saddles. She was not crying any more, just clinging to him, as
though she could never again bear to let him go.

"Oh, Jack, it is so good just to feel you near again."

"Yes, dear," soothingly, "and it is good to hear you say Jack, but tell me
one thing--is any one else in the cabin? Is Hawley here?"

"No, no! He left us early the first morning. I haven't either seen or
heard of him since. The men have left me alone since we got here; I have
had the cabin all to myself until to-night. I have not suffered, only
mentally--from dread of what they intended doing with me--until to-night.
Three men rode in here just before sundown--two Mexicans and an Indian.
One of them was an awful looking old man, with a scar on his cheek, and a
face that made me shudder. He didn't see me, but I saw him through the
window, and he had such strange eyes. All the men acted as though they
were afraid of him, and I heard him say he didn't care what Hawley's
orders were, he was going to sleep inside; if the girl didn't like it she
could take the other room. I didn't know what to do--oh, I was so afraid
of him; but what he said gave me an idea, and I went into the back room,
and put up a bar across the door. When he came in he tried the door; then
he spoke through it, but I never answered; and finally he lay down and
went to sleep. I sat there in the dark so long, and when I heard you--I--I
thought it must be some of the others."

He stroked her hair, whispering words of encouragement.

"That is all done with now, Hope, and we'll have those fellows at our
mercy in another half-hour. But I must go now to the boys; lie down here
behind these saddles, and don't move until I come for you. I can trust you
to remain right here?"

"Yes." He was bending over, and her eyes were upon his face. Suddenly,
obeying an irresistible impulse, he clasped her to him, and their lips

"Sweetheart," he whispered softly.

He could not hear her answer, but her arms were about his neck.

Chapter XXXV

The Cabin Taken

His heart beating with new happiness, yet conscious of the stern duty
still confronting him, Keith joined the others, giving them, in a whisper,
a hurried account of Hope's release from the cabin, and of what she had to

"It's old Juan Sanchez in the front room, boys," he added soberly, "and
there is ten thousand dollars reward out for him, dead or alive."

Joe of the "Bar X" drew in his breath sharply.

"It'll sure be dead then," he muttered, "that cuss will never be got no
other way."

They went at it in the grim silent manner of the West, wasting little
time, feeling no mercy. One by one the unconscious sleepers were aroused,
each waking to find a steel barrel pressing against his forehead, and to
hear a stern voice say ominously, "Not a move, Johnny; yes, that's a gun;
now get up quietly, and step out here." Resistance was useless, and the
five, rendered weaponless, were herded back toward the corral. They all
belonged to Hawley's outfit; one, a black-whiskered surly brute Bristoe
remembered having seen in Sheridan. There was no time to deal with them
then, and a "Bar X" man was placed on guard, with orders to shoot at the
slightest suspicious movement.

The Indian, then, would be guarding the front of the house, and Sanchez
sleeping inside. Well, the former could be left alone; his chance of
escape would be small enough with Fairbain and Neb on the opposite bank.
Old Sanchez was the villain they wanted--dead or alive. With this in view,
and anxious to make a quick job of it, the three entered the back room,
and, revolvers in hand, groped their way across to the connecting door. As
Hope had described, this had been securely fastened by a stout wooden bar.
Bristoe forced it from the sockets, not without some slight noise, and
Keith, crouching down at one side, lifted the latch. "Keep down low,
boys," he cautioned, "where he can't hit you."

With one quick push he flung the door wide open, and a red flash lit the
room. There were two sharp reports, the bullets crashing into the wall
behind them, the sudden blaze of flame revealing the front door open, and
within it the black outline of a man's figure. Two of the men fired in
instant response, leaping recklessly forward, but were as quickly left
blind in the darkness, the outer door slammed in their faces. Outside
there was a snarl of rage, another shot, a fierce curse in Spanish; then
Keith flung the door wide open, and leaped down the step. As he did so he
struck a body, and fell forward, his revolver knocked from his hand.
Rising to his knees, the dim light of the stars revealed a man already
half across the stream. Suddenly two sparks of fire leaped forth from the
blackness of the opposite bank; the man flung up his hand, staggered, then
went stumbling up the stream, knee deep in water. He made a dozen yards,
reeling as though drunk, and fell forward, face down across a spit of
sand. Keith stared out at the black, motionless shape, felt along the
ground for his lost gun, and arose to his feet. Bristoe had turned over
the dead body at the foot of the steps, and was peering down into the
upturned face.

"It's the Indian," he said grimly, "Sanchez must 'a' mistook him fer one
of us, and shot the poor devil."

"And Sanchez himself is out yonder on that sand-spit," and Keith pointed;
then lifted his voice to make it carry across the stream. "Come on over,
Doctor, you and Neb. We've got the gang. Bring that body out there along
with you."

The "Bar X" man waded out to help, and the three together laid the dead
Mexican outlaw on the bank beside the Indian he had shot down in his
effort to escape. Keith stood for a moment bending low to look curiously
into the dead face--wrinkled, scarred, still featuring cruelty, the thin
lips drawn back in a snarl. What scenes of horror those eyes had gazed
upon during fifty years of crime; what suffering of men, women, children;
what deeds of rapine; what examples or merciless hate. Juan Sanchez!--the
very sound of the name made the blood run cold. "Dead or alive!" Well,
they had him at last--dead; and the plainsman shuddered, as he turned

Taking Fairbain with him, and hastily reviewing late occurrences to him,
Keith crossed over to the corral, realizing that their work--his work--was
not wholly done until Hawley had been located. With this quest in mind he
strode straight to the black-bearded giant who had guarded Hope from

"What is your name?" he asked sharply.

The man looked up scowling.

"Hatchett," he answered gruffly.

"Well, Hatchett, I am going to ask you a question or two, and advise you
to reply just about as straight as you know how. I am in no mood to-night
for any foolishness. Where is 'Black Bart' Hawley?"

"How in hell should I know?"

"You do know, just the same. Perhaps not to an inch, or a mile, but you
know near enough where he is, and where he has been since you left

"If I do, I'm damned if I'll tell you."

"No? Well now, Hatchett, listen to me," and Keith's voice had in it the
click of a steel trap. "You'll either answer, and answer straight, or
we'll hang you to that cottonwood in about five minutes. If you want a
chance for your miserable life you answer me. We have our way of treating
your kind out in this country. Sit up, you brute! Now where did Hawley go
after he left you?"

"To Fort Larned."

"After those fresh horses?"


"He didn't bring them to you; I know that. Where has he been since?"

"Topeky and Leavenworth."

"How do you know?"

"He writ me a note the boss herder brought."

"Hand it over."

Keith took the dirty slip of paper the man reluctantly extracted from his
belt, and Fairbain lit matches while he ran his eyes hastily over the
lines. As he ended he crushed the paper between his fingers, and walked
away to the end of the corral. He wanted to be alone, to think, to decide
definitely upon what he ought to do. Hawley, according to the schedule
just read, must have left Larned alone early the day before; this night he
would be camped at the water-hole; with daybreak he expected to resume his
lonely journey across the desert to the Salt Fork. For years Keith had
lived a primitive life, and in some ways his thought had grown primitive.
His code of honor was that of the border, tinged by that of the South
before the war. The antagonism existing between him and this gambler was
personal, private, deadly--not an affair for any others--outsiders--to
meddle with. He could wait here, and permit Hawley to be made captive;
could watch him ride unsuspectingly into the power of these armed men, and
then turn him over to the law to be dealt with. The very thought nauseated
him. That would be a coward's act, leaving a stain never to be eradicated.
No, he must meet this as became a man, and now, now before Hope so much as
dreamed of his purpose--aye, and before he spoke another word of love to
Hope. He wheeled about fully decided on his course, his duty, and met
Fairbain face to face.

"Jack," the latter said earnestly, "I read the note over your shoulder,
and of course I know what you mean to do. A Southern gentleman could not
choose otherwise. But I've come here to beg you to let me have the

"You?" surprised and curious. "What greater claim on that fellow's life
have you than I?"

The pudgy hands of the doctor grasped the plainsman's shoulders.

"It's for Christie," he explained brokenly. "She was the one he tried to
run away with. You--you know how I feel."

"Sure, I know," shaking the other off, yet not roughly. "But it happened
to be Miss Waite he took, and so this is my job, Fairbain. Besides, I've
got another score to settle with him."

He wasted little time upon preparations,--a few brief words of instruction
to Bristoe; a request to the doctor not to leave Hope alone; the
extracting of a promise from the two "Bar X" men to return to Larned with
the prisoners. Then he roped the best horse in the corral, saddled and
bridled him, and went into the cabin. She had a light burning, and met him
at the door.

"I thought you would never come, but they told me you were unhurt."

"Not a scratch, little girl; we have been a lucky bunch. But I have had a
great deal to look after. Now I shall be obliged to ride ahead as far as
the water-hole, and let you come on with the others a little later, after
you get breakfast. You can spare me a few hours, can't you?"

His tone was full of good humor, and his lips smiling, yet somehow she
felt her heart sink, an inexplicable fear finding expression in her eyes.

"But--but why do you need to go? Couldn't some of the others?"

"There is a reason which I will explain later," he said, more gravely.
"Surely you can trust me, Hope, and feel that I am only doing what it
seems absolutely necessary for me to do?" He bent down, and kissed her.
"It will be only for a few hours, and no cause for worry. Good-bye now,
until we meet to-night at the water-hole."

The east was gray with coming daylight as he rode plashing across the
stream and up the opposite bank. She watched hint, rubbing the blinding
mist from her eyes, until horse and man became a mere dark speck, finally
fading away completely into the dull plain of the desert.

Chapter XXXVI

The Duel in the Desert

Keith rode straight forward into the sandy desolation, spurring his horse
into a swift trot. After one glance backward as they clambered up the
steep bank, a glance which revealed Hope's slender form in the cabin door,
his eyes never turned again that way. He had a man's stern work to do out
yonder, and his purpose could not be swerved, his firmness of hand and
keenness of eye affected, by any thought of her. His lips compressed, his
fingers gripping the rein, he drove all regretful memory from his mind,
until every nerve within him throbbed in unison with his present purpose.
He was right; he knew he was right. It was not hate, not even revenge,
which had sent him forth, leaving love behind, but honor--the honor of the
South, and of the frontier, of his ancestry and his training--honor that
drove him now to meet Hawley face to face, man to man, to settle the feud
between them for all time. And he rode smiling, gladly, as to a tryst, now
that he was at last alone, free in the desert.

The hours passed, the sun rising higher in the blazing blue of the sky;
the horse, wearied by the constant pull of the sand, had long since slowed
down to a walk; the last dim blur of the cottonwoods along the Fork had
disappeared; and the rider swayed in the saddle, the dead lifelessness of
sky and desert dulling his brain. Yet he had not forgotten his errand--
rousing constantly from lethargy to sweep his shaded eyes about the
rounded horizon, keenly marking the slightest shadow across the sands,
taking advantage of every drift to give him wider viewpoint, rising in his
stirrups to scan the leagues of desolation ahead. Twice he drew his
revolver from out its sheath, tested it, and slipped in a fresh cartridge,
returning the weapon more lightly to its place, the flap of the holster
turned back and held open by his leg. The sun beat upon him like a ball of
fire, the hot sand flinging the blaze back into his face. He pushed back
the upper part of his shirt, and drank a swallow of tepid water from a
canteen strapped behind the saddle. His eyes ached with the glare, until
he saw fantastic red and yellow shapes dancing dizzily before him. The
weariness of the long night pressed upon his eye-balls; he felt the strain
of the past hours, the lack of food, the need of rest. His head nodded,
and he brought himself to life again with a jerk and a muttered word,
staring out into the dim, formless distance. Lord, if there was only
something moving; something he could concentrate his attention upon;
something to rest the straining eyes!

But there was nothing, absolutely nothing--just that seemingly endless
stretch of sand, circled by the blazing sky, the wind sweeping its surface
soundless, and hot, as though from the pits of hell; no stir, no motion,
no movement of anything animate or inanimate to break the awful monotony.
Death! it was death everywhere! his aching eyes rested on nothing but what
was typical of death. Even the heat waves seemed fantastic, grotesque,
assuming spectral forms, as though ghosts beckoned and danced in the haze,
luring him on to become one of themselves. Keith was not a dreamer, nor
one to yield easily to such brain fancies, but the mad delirium of
loneliness gripped him, and he had to struggle back to sanity, beating his
hands upon his breast to stir anew the sluggish circulation of his blood,
and talking to the horse in strange feverishness.

With every step of advance the brooding silence seemed more profound, more
deathlike. He got to marking the sand ridges, their slight variations
giving play to the brain. Way off to the left was the mirage of a lake,
apparently so real that he had to battle with himself to keep from turning
aside. He dropped forward in the saddle, his head hanging low, so blinded
by the incessant sun glare he could no longer bear the glitter of that
horrible ocean of sand. It was noon now--noon, and he had been riding
steadily seven hours. The thought brought his blurred eyes again to the
horizon. Where could he be, the man he sought in the heart of this
solitude? Surely he should be here by now, if he had left the water-hole
at dawn. Could he have gone the longer route, south to the Fork? The
possibility of such a thing seared through him like a hot iron, driving
the dulness from his brain, the lethargy from his limbs. God! no! Fate
could never play such a scurvy trick as that! The man must have been
delayed; had failed to leave camp early--somewhere ahead, yonder where the
blue haze marked the union of sand and sky, he was surely coming, riding
half dead, and drooping in the saddle.

Again Keith rose in his stirrups, rubbing the mist out of his eyes that he
might see clearer, and stared ahead. What was that away out yonder? a
shadow? a spot dancing before his tortured vision? or a moving, living
something which he actually saw? He could not tell, he could not be sure,
yet he straightened up expectantly, shading his eyes, and never losing
sight of the object. It moved, grew larger, darker, more real--yet how it
crawled, crawled, crawled toward him. It seemed as if the vague, shapeless
thing would, never take form, never stand out revealed against the sky so
he could determine the truth. He had forgotten all else--the silent
aesert, the blazing sun, the burning wind--all his soul concentrated on
that speck yonder. Suddenly it disappeared--a swale in the sand probably--
and, when it rose into view again, he uttered a cry of joy--it was a horse
and rider!

Little by little they drew nearer one another, two black specks in that
vast ocean of sand, the only moving, living things under the brazen circle
of the sky. Keith was ready now, his eyes bright, the cocked revolver
gripped hard in his hand. The space between them narrowed, and Hawley saw
him, caught a glimpse of the face under the broad hat brim, the burning
eyes surveying him. With an oath he stopped his horse, dragging at his
gun, surprised, dazed, yet instantly understanding. Keith also halted, and
across the intervening desert the eyes of the two men met in grim
defiance. The latter wet his dry lips, and spoke shortly: "I reckon you
know what this means, Hawley, and why I am here. We're Southerners both of
us, and we settle our own personal affairs. You've got to fight me now,
man to man."

The gambler glanced about him, and down at his horse. If he thought of
flight it was useless. His lip curled with contempt.

"Damn your talking, Keith," he returned savagely. "Let's have it over
with," and spurred his horse. The gun of the other came up.

"Wait!" and Hawley paused, dragging at his rein. "One of us most likely is
going to die here; perhaps both. But if either survives he'll need a horse
to get out of this alive. Dismount; I'll do the same; step away so the
horses are out of range, and then we'll fight it out--is that square?"

Without a word, his eyes gleaming with cunning hatred, the gambler swung
down from his saddle onto the sand, his horse interposed between him and
the other. Keith did the same, his eyes peering across the back of his

"Now," he said steadily, "when I count three drive your horse aside, and
let go--are you ready?"

"Damn you--yes!"

"Then look out--one! two! three!"

The plainsman struck his horse with the quirt in his left hand, and sprang
swiftly aside so as to clear the flank of the animal, his shooting arm
flung out. There was a flash of flame across Hawley's saddle, a sharp

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