Roy Rides his Paint Hoss
BUT he did.
For next day Pat Ryan rode up to the Lazy Double D with a piece of news that took Roy straight to his pinto. Beulah Rutherford had disappeared. She had been out riding and Blacky had come home with an empty saddle. So far as was known, Brad Charlton had seen her last. He had met her just above the Laguna Sinks, had talked with her, and had left the young woman headed toward the mountains.
The word had reached Battle Butte through Slim Sanders, who had been sent down from Huerfano Park for help. The Rutherfords and their friends were already combing the hills for the lost girl, but the owner of the horse ranch wanted Sheriff Sweeney to send out posses as a border patrol. Opinion was divided. Some thought Beulah might have met a grizzly, been unhorsed, and fallen a victim to it. There was the possibility that she might have stumbled while climbing and hurt herself. According to Sanders, her father held to another view. He was convinced that Meldrum was at the bottom of the thing.
This was Roy's instant thought, too. He could not escape the sinister suggestion that through the girl the ruffian had punished them all. While he gave sharp, short orders to get together the riders of the ranch, his mind was busy with the situation. Had he better join Sweeney's posse and patrol the desert? Or would he help more by pushing straight into the hills?
Dingwell rode up and looked around in surprise. "What's the stir, son?"
His partner told him what he had heard and what he suspected.
Before he answered, Dave chewed a meditative cud. "Maybeso you 're right—and maybe 'way off. Say you 're wrong. Say Meldrum has nothing to do with this. In that case it is in the hills that we have got to find Miss Beulah."
"But he has. I feel sure he has. Mr. Ryan says Rutherford thinks so, too."
"Both you and Hal have got that crook Meldrum in yore minds. You 've been thinking a lot about him, so you jump to the conclusion that what you 're afraid of has happened. The chances are ten to one against it. But we 'll say you're right. Put yourself in Meldrum's place. What would he do?"
Beaudry turned a gray, agonized face on his friend. "I don't know. What—what would he do?"
"The way to get at it is to figure yourself in his boots. Remember that you 're a bad, rotten lot, cur to the bone. You meet up with this girl and get her in yore power. You 've got a grudge against her because she spoiled yore plans, and because through her you were handed the whaling of yore life and are being hounded out of the country. You 're sore clear through at all her people and at all her friends. Naturally, you 're as sweet-tempered as a sore-headed bear, and you 've probably been drinking like a sheepherder on a spree."
"I know what a devil he is. The question is how far would he dare go?"
"You 've put yore finger right on the point, son. What might restrain him would n't be any moral sense, but fear. He knows that once he touched Miss Rutherford, this country would treat him like a rattlesnake. He could not even be sure that the Rutherfords would not hunt him down in Mexico."
"You think he would let her alone, then?"
The old-timer shook his head. "No, he would n't do that. But I reckon he'd try to postpone a decision as long as he could. Unless he destroyed her in the first rush of rage, he would n't have the nerve to do it until he had made himself crazy drunk. It all depends on circumstances, but my judgment is—if he had a chance and if he did n't think it too great a risk—that he would try to hold her a prisoner as a sort of hostage to gloat over."
"You mean keep her—unharmed?"
They were already in the saddle and on the road. Dave looked across at his white-faced friend.
"I'm only guessing, Roy, but that's the way I figure it," he said gently.
"You don't think he would try to take her across the desert with him to Mexico."
Ryan shook his head.
"No chance. He could n't make it. When he leaves the hills, Miss Rutherford will stay there."
"Alive?" asked Beaudry from a dry throat.
"So that whether Miss Beulah did or did not meet Meldrum, we have to look for her up among the mountains of the Big Creek watershed," concluded Dingwell. "I believe we 'll find her safe and sound. Chances are Meldrum is n't within forty miles of her."
They were riding toward Lonesome Park, from which they intended to work up into the hills. Just before reaching the rim of the park, they circled around a young pine lying across the trail. Roy remembered the tree. It had stood on a little knoll, strong and graceful, reaching straight toward heaven with a kind of gallant uprightness. Now its trunk was snapped, its boughs crushed, its foliage turning sere. An envious wind had brought it low. Somehow that pine reminded Beaudry poignantly of the girl they were seeking. She, too, had always stood aloof, a fine and vital personality, before the eyes of men sufficient to herself. But as the evergreen had stretched its hundred arms toward light and sunshine, so Beulah Rutherford had cried dumbly to life for some vague good she could not formulate.
Were her pride and courage abased, too? Roy would not let himself believe it. The way of youth is to deny the truth of all signposts which point to the futility of beauty and strength. It would be a kind of apostasy to admit that her sweet, lissom grace might be forever crushed and bruised.
They rode hard and steadily. Before dusk they were well up toward the divide among the wooded pockets of the hills. From one of these a man came to meet them.
"It's Hal Rutherford," announced Ryan, who was riding in front with Dingwell.
The owner of the horse ranch nodded a greeting as he drew up in front of them. He was unshaven and gaunt. Furrows of anxiety lined his face.
"Anything new, Hal?" asked Dave.
"Not a thing. We 're combing the hills thorough."
"You don't reckon that maybe a cougar—?" Ryan stopped. It occurred to him that his suggestion was not a very cheerful one.
Rutherford looked at the little Irishman from bleak eyes. The misery in them was for the moment submerged in a swift tide of hate. "A two-legged cougar, Pat. If I meet up with him, I 'll take his hide off inch by inch."
"Meaning Meldrum?" asked Roy.
"Meaning Meldrum." A spasm of pain shot across the face of the man. "If he's done my little girl any meanness, he'd better blow his head off before I get to him."
"Don't believe he'd dare hurt Miss Beulah, Rutherford. Meldrum belongs to the coyote branch of the wolf family. I 've noticed it's his night to howl only when hunters are liable to be abed. If he's in this thing at all, I 'll bet he's trying to play both ends against the middle. We 'll sure give him a run for his," Dingwell concluded.
"Hope you 're right, Dave," Rutherford added in a voice rough with the feeling he could not suppress: "I appreciate it that you boys from the Lazy Double D came after what has taken place."
Dave grinned cheerfully. "Sho, Hal! Maybe Beaudry and I are n't sending any loving-cups up to you and yours, but we don't pull any of that sulk-in-the-tent stuff when our good friend Beulah Rutherford is lost in the hills. She went through for us proper, and we ain't going to quit till we bring her back to you as peart and sassy as that calf there."
"What part of the country do you want us to work?" asked Ryan.
"You can take Del Oro and Lame Cow Creeks from the divide down to the foothills," Rutherford answered. "I 'll send one of the boys over to boss the round-up. He 'll know the ground better than you lads. Make camp here to-night and he 'll join you before you start. To-morrow evening I 'll have a messenger meet you on the flats. We 're trying to keep in touch with each other, you understand."
Rutherford left them making camp. They were so far up in the mountains that the night was cool, even though the season was midsummer. Unused to sleeping outdoors as yet, Roy lay awake far into the night. His nerves were jumpy. The noises of the grazing horses and of the four-footed inhabitants of the night startled him more than once from a cat-nap. His thoughts were full of Beulah Rutherford. Was she alive or dead to-night, in peril or in safety?
At last, in the fag end of the night, he fell into sound sleep that was untroubled. From this he was wakened in the first dim dawn by the sound of his companions stirring. A fire was already blazing and breakfast in process of making. He rose and stretched his stiff limbs. Every bone seemed to ache from contact with the hard ground.
While they were eating breakfast, a man rode up and dismounted. A long, fresh zigzag scar stretched across his forehead. It was as plain to be seen as the scowl which drew his heavy eyebrows together.
"’Lo, Charlton. Come to boss this round-up for us?" asked Dingwell cheerily.
The young man nodded sulkily. "Hal sent me. The boys were n't with him." He looked across the fire at Beaudry, and there was smouldering rage in his narrowed eyes.
Roy murmured "Good-morning" in a rather stifled voice. This was the first time he had met Charlton since they had clashed in the arcade of the Silver Dollar. That long deep scar fascinated him. He felt an impulse to apologize humbly for having hit him so hard. To put such a mark on a man for life was a liberty that might well be taken as a personal affront. No wonder Charlton hated him—and as their eyes met now, Roy had no doubt about that. The man was his enemy. Some day he would even the score. Again Beaudry's heart felt the familiar drench of an icy wave.
Charlton did not answer his greeting. He flushed to his throat, turned abruptly on his heel, and began to talk with Ryan. The hillman wanted it clearly understood that the feud he cherished was only temporarily abandoned. But even Roy noticed that the young Admirable Crichton had lost some of his debonair aplomb.
The little Irishman explained this with a grin to Dave as they were riding together half an hour later. "It's not so easy to get away with that slow insolence of his while he's wearing that forgit-me-not young Beaudry handed him in the mix-up."
"Sort of spoils the toutensemble, as that young Melrose tenderfoot used to say—kinder as if a bald-haided guy was playing Romeo and had lost his wig in the shuffle," agreed Dave.
By the middle of the forenoon they were well up in the headwaters of the two creeks they were to work. Charlton divided the party so as to cover both watersheds as they swept slowly down. Roy was on the extreme right of those working Del Oro.
It was a rough country, with wooded draws cached in unexpected pockets of the hills. Here a man might lie safely on one of a hundred ledges while the pursuit drove past within fifty feet of him. As Roy's pinto clambered up and down the steep hills, he recalled the advice of Dave to ride a buckskin "that melts into the atmosphere like a patch of bunch grass." He wished he had taken that advice. A man looking for revenge could crouch in the chaparral and with a crook of his finger send winged death at his enemy. A twig crackling under the hoof of his horse more than once sent an electric shock through his pulses. The crash of a bear through the brush seemed to stop the beating of his heart.
Charlton had made a mistake in putting Beaudry on the extreme right of the drive. The number of men combing the two creeks was not enough to permit close contact. Sometimes a rider was within hail of his neighbor. More often he was not. Roy, unused to following the rodeo, was deflected by the topography of the ridge so far to the right that he lost touch with the rest.
By the middle of the afternoon he had to confess to himself with chagrin that he did not even know how to reach Del Oro. While he had been riding the rough wooded ridge above, the creek had probably made a sharp turn to the left. Must he go back the way he had come? Or could he cut across country to it? It was humiliating that he could not even follow a small river without losing the stream and himself. He could vision the cold sneer of Charlton when he failed to appear at the night rendezvous. Even his friends would be annoyed at such helplessness.
After an hour's vain search he was more deeply tangled in the web of hills. He was no longer even sure how to get down from them into the lower reaches of country toward which he was aiming.
While he hesitated on a ridge there came to him a faint, far cry. He gave a shout of relief, then listened for his answer. It did not come. He called again, a third time, and a fourth. The wind brought back no reply. Roy rode in the direction of the sound that had first registered itself on his ears, stopping every minute or two to shout. Once he fancied he heard again the voice.
Then, unexpectedly, the cry came perfectly clear, over to the right scarcely a hundred yards. A little arroyo of quaking aspens lay between him and the one who called. He dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling, and pushed through the growth of young trees. Emerging from these, he climbed the brow of the hill and looked around. Nobody was in sight.
"Where are you?" he shouted.
"Here—in the prospect hole."
His pulses crashed. That voice—he would have known it out of a million.
A small dirt dump on the hillside caught his eye. He ran forward to the edge of a pit and looked down.
The haggard eyes of Beulah Rutherford were lifted to meet his.