WHEN Beaudry climbed the cañon wall to the Rothgerber pasture he breathed a deep sigh of relief. For many hours he had been under a heavy strain, nerves taut as fiddle-strings. Fifty times his heart had jumped with terror. But he had done the thing he had set out to do.
He had stiffened his flaccid will and spurred his trembling body forward. If he had been unable to control his fear, at least he had not let it master him. He had found out for Ryan where Dingwell was held prisoner. It had been his intention to leave the park as soon as he knew this, report the facts to the friends of Dave, and let them devise a way of escape. He had done his full share. But he could not follow this course now.
The need of the cattleman was urgent. Somehow it must be met at once. Yet what could he do against two armed men who would not hesitate to shoot him down if necessary? There must be some way of saving Dingwell if he could only find it.
In spite of his anxiety, a fine spiritual exaltation flooded him. So far he had stood the acid test, had come through without dishonor. He might be a coward; at least, he was not a quitter. Plenty of men would have done his day's work without a tremor. What brought comfort to Roy's soul was that he had been able to do it at all.
Mrs. Rothgerber greeted him with exclamations of delight. The message of Rutherford had frightened her even though she did not entirely understand it.
"Hermann iss out looking for you. Mr. Rutherford—the one that owns the horse ranch—he wass here and left a message for you."
"A message for me! What was it?"
With many an "Ach!" she managed to tell him.
The face of her boarder went white. Since Rutherford was warning him against Tighe, the danger must be imminent. Should he go down to the horse ranch now? Or had he better wait until it was quite dark? While he was still debating this with himself, the old German came into the house.
"Home, eh? Gut, gut! They are already yet watching the road."
Roy's throat choked. "Who?"
This question Rothgerber could not answer. In the dusk he had not recognized the men he had seen. Moreover, they had ridden into the brush to escape observation. Both of them had been armed with rifles.
The old woman started to light a lamp, but Roy stopped her. "Let's eat in the dark," he proposed. "Then I 'll slip out to the bunkhouse and you can have your light."
His voice shook. When he tried to eat, his fingers could scarcely hold a knife and fork. Supper was for him a sham. A steel band seemed to grip his throat and make the swallowing of food impossible. He was as unnerved as a condemned criminal waiting for the noose.
After drinking a cup of coffee, he pushed back his chair and rose.
"Petter stay with us," urged the old German. He did not know why this young man was in danger, but he read in the face the stark fear of a soul in travail.
"No. I 'll saddle and go down to see Rutherford. Good-night."
Roy went out of the back door and crept along the shadows of the hill. Beneath his foot a dry twig snapped. It was enough. He fled panic-stricken, pursued by all the demons of hell his fears could evoke. A deadly, unnerving terror clutched at his throat. The pounding blood seemed ready to burst the veins at his temples.
The bunkhouse loomed before him in the darkness. As he plunged at the door a shot rang out. A bolt of fire burned into his shoulder. He flung the door open, slammed it shut behind him, locked and bolted it almost with one motion. For a moment he leaned half swooning against the jamb, sick through and through at the peril he had just escaped.
But had he escaped it? Would they not break in on him and drag him out to death? The acuteness of his fright drove away the faintness. He dragged the bed from its place and pushed it against the door. Upon it he piled the table, the washstand, the chairs. Feverishly he worked to barricade the entrance against his enemies.
When he had finished, his heart was beating against his ribs like that of a wild rabbit in the hands of a boy. He looked around for the safest place to hide. From the floor he stripped a Navajo rug and pulled up the trapdoor that led to a small cellar stairway. Down into this cave he went, letting the door fall shut after him.
In that dark blackness he waited, a crumpled, trembling wretch, for whatever fate might have in store for him.
How long he crouched there Beaudry never knew. At last reason asserted itself and fought back the panic. To stay where he was would be to invite destruction. His attackers would come to the window. The barricaded door, the displaced rug, the trapdoor, would advertise his terror. The outlaws would break in and make an end of him.
Roy could hardly drag his feet up the stairs, so near was he to physical collapse. He listened. No sound reached him. Slowly he pushed up the trapdoor. Nobody was in the room. He crept up, lowered the door, and replaced the carpet. With his eyes on the window he put back the furniture where it belonged. Then, revolver in hand, he sat in one corner of the room and tried to decide what he must do.
Down in the cellar he had been vaguely aware of a dull pain in his shoulder and a wet, soggy shirt above the place. But the tenseness of his anxiety had pushed this into the ground of his thoughts. Now again the throbbing ache intruded itself. The fingers of his left hand searched under his waistcoat, explored a spot that was tender and soppy, and came forth moist.
He knew he had been shot, but this gave him very little concern. He had no time to worry about his actual ills, since his whole mind was given to the fear of those that were impending.
Upon the window there came a faint tapping. The hand with the revolver jerked up automatically. Every muscle of Beaudry's body grew rigid. His senses were keyed to a tense alertness. He moistened his lips with his tongue as he crouched in readiness for the attack about to break.
Again the tapping, and this time with it a quick, low, imperious call.
"Mr. Street. Are you there? Let me in!"
He knew that voice—would have known it among a thousand. In another moment he had raised the window softly and Beulah Rutherford was climbing in.
She panted as if she had been running. "They 're watching the entrance to the arroyo. I came up through the cañon and across the pasture," she explained.
"Did they see you?"
"No. Think not. We must get out of here."
"The same way I came."
"But—if they see us and shoot?"
The girl brushed his objection aside. "We can't help that. They know you 're here, don't they?"
"Then they 'll rush the house. Come."
Still he hesitated. At least they had the shelter of the house. Outside, if they should be discovered, they would be at the mercy of his foes.
"What are you waiting for?" she asked sharply, and she moved toward the window.
But though he recoiled from going to meet the danger, he could not let a girl lead the way. Beaudry dropped to the ground outside and stood ready to lend her a hand. She did not need one. With a twist of her supple body Beulah came through the opening and landed lightly beside him.
They crept back to the shadows of the hill and skirted its edge. Slowly they worked their way from the bunkhouse, making the most of such cover as the chaparral afforded. Farther up they crossed the road into the pasture and by way of it reached the orchard. Every inch of the distance Roy sweated fear.
She was leading, ostensibly because she knew the lay of the land better. Through the banked clouds the moon was struggling. Its light fell upon her lithe, slender figure, the beautifully poised head, the crown of soft black hair. She moved with the grace and the rhythm of a racing filly stepping from the paddock to the track.
Beaudry had noticed, even in his anxiety, that not once since the tapping on the window had her hand touched his or the sweep of her skirt brushed against his clothes. She would save him if she could, but with an open disdain that dared him to misunderstand.
They picked their course diagonally through the orchard toward the cañon. Suddenly Beulah stopped. Without turning, she swept her hand back and caught his. Slowly she drew him to the shadow of an apple tree. There, palm to palm, they crouched together.
Voices drifted to them.
"I'd swear I hit him," one said.
"Maybe you put him out of business. We got to find out," another answered.
"I 'll crawl up to the window and take a look," responded the first.
The voices and the sound of the man's movements died. Beulah's hand dropped to her side.
"We 're all right now," she said coldly.
They reached the gulch and slowly worked their way down its precipitous sides to the bottom.
The girl turned angrily on Roy. "Why did n't you come after father warned you?"
"I did n't get his warning till night. I was away."
"Then how did you get back up the arroyo when it was watched?"
"I—I was n't out into the park," he told her.
"Oh!" Her scornful gypsy eyes passed over him and wiped him from the map. She would not even comment on the obvious alternative.
"You think I 've been up at Dan Meldrum's spying," he protested hotly.
"Have n't you?" she flung at him.
"Yes, if that's what you want to call it," came quickly his bitter answer. "The man who has been my best friend is lying up there a prisoner because he knows too much about the criminals of Huerfano Park. I heard Meldrum threaten to kill him unless he promised what was wanted of him. Why should n't I do my best to help the man who—"
Her voice, sharpened by apprehension, cut into his. "What man? Who are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about David Dingwell."
"What do you mean that he knows too much? Too much about what?" she demanded.
"About the express robbery."
"Do you mean to say that—that my people—?" She choked with anger, but back of her indignation was fear.
"I mean to say that one of your brothers was guarding Dingwell and that later your father went up to Meldrum's place. They are starving him to get something out of him. I serve warning on you that if they hurt my friend—"
"Starving him!" she broke out fiercely. "Do you dare say that my people—my father—would torture anybody? Is that what you mean, you lying spy?"
Her fury was a spur to him. "I don't care what words you use," he flung back wildly. "They have given him no food for three days. I did n't know such things were done nowadays. It's as bad as what the old Apaches did. It's devilish—"
He pulled himself up. What right had he to talk that way to the girl who had just saved his life? Her people might be law-breakers, but he felt that she was clean of any wrongdoing.
Her pride was shaken. A more immediate issue had driven it into the background.
"Why should they hurt him?" she asked. "If they had meant to do that—"
"Because he won't tell what he knows—where the gold is—won't promise to keep quiet about it afterward. What else can they do? They can't turn him loose as a witness against them."
"I don't believe it. I don't believe a word of it." Her voice broke. "I'm going up to see right away."
"I mean now."
She turned up the gulch instead of down. Reluctantly he followed her.