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Title: Out of the Depths - A Romance of Reclamation
Author: Bennet, Robert Ames, 1870-1954
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Out of the Depths - A Romance of Reclamation" ***

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Transcriber's note:

      The author consistently refers to a handgun as a "Colt's."
      This is a Colt's revolver, though the word "revolver" is
      not used.



OUT OF THE DEPTHS

A Romance of Reclamation

by

ROBERT AMES BENNET

Author of "Out of the Primitive," "The Shogun's Daughter,"
"Which One," Etc.

With Illustrations by George Brehm



[Illustration: It was a wild race [_Page 32_]]



Chicago
A. C. McClurg & Co.
1913

Copyright
A. C. McClurg & Co.
1913

Published March, 1913

Copyrighted in Great Britain

Press of the Vail Company
Coshocton, U. S. A.



TO

"THE SONS OF MARTHA"



CONTENTS

 CHAPTER                                                          PAGE
      I. Deep Cañon                                                  1
     II. A Yearling Sold                                             9
    III. Queen of What?                                             20
     IV. Downhill and Up                                            32
      V. Into the Depths                                            39
     VI. A Test of Caliber                                          52
    VII. The Chance of Reclamation                                  68
   VIII. A Man's Size Horse                                         81
     IX. The Snake                                                  93
      X. Coming Events                                             110
     XI. Self-Defense                                              125
    XII. The Meeting                                               138
   XIII. The Other Lady's Husband                                  148
    XIV. A Descent                                                 162
     XV. Levels and Slants                                         176
    XVI. Metal and Mettle                                          185
   XVII. A Shot in the Dusk                                        197
  XVIII. On the Brink                                              207
    XIX. The Plotters                                              218
     XX. Indian Shoes                                              232
    XXI. Madonna Dolorosa                                          244
   XXII. A Real Wolf                                               254
  XXIII. The Temptation                                            268
   XXIV. Blind Love                                                280
    XXV. The Descent Into Hell                                     291
   XXVI. In the Gloom                                              303
  XXVII. Lower Depths                                              315
 XXVIII. Light in the Darkness                                     327
   XXIX. The Climber                                               339
    XXX. Lurking Beasts                                            349
   XXXI. Confessions                                               357
  XXXII. Over the Brink                                            366
 XXXIII. Friends in Need                                           374
  XXXIV. Reclamation                                               388



ILLUSTRATIONS

                                                                  PAGE

 It was a wild race                                     _Frontispiece_

 It sounded its shrill, menacing rattle                            106

 "You have something to tell me--your voice--your
 eyes--"                                                           286

 Another desperate clutch at the rope--still another               328



OUT OF THE DEPTHS

CHAPTER I

DEEP CAÑON


The hunter was riding leisurely up the steep mountain side above Dry
Mesa. On such an ascent most city men would have preferred to climb
afoot. But there was a month's layer of tan on the hunter's handsome,
supercilious face. He balanced himself lightly on his flat English
saddle, and permitted the wiry little cow pony to pick the best path
over the ledges and up the stiff slopes between the scattered pines.

In keeping with his saddle, the hunter wore English riding breeches
and leggins. Otherwise he was dressed as a Texas cowboy of the past
generation. His sombrero was almost Mexican in its size and
ornateness. But his rifle was of the latest American pattern, and in
place of the conventional Colt's he carried an automatic pistol. As
his horse patiently clambered with him up towards the top of the
escarpment the man gazed indolently about between half-closed eyelids
and inhaled the smoke from an unbroken "chain" of gilt-tipped
cigarettes.

The pony scrambled up the last ledges and came to a halt on the rim of
High Mesa. It had been a long, hard climb. Tough as he was and
mountain bred, the beast's rough coat was lathered with sweat and his
flanks were heaving. The hunter's gaze roamed carelessly over the
hilly pine-clad plateau of the upper mesa, while he took a nip of
brandy from a silver-cased flask and washed it down with a drink of
the tepid water in his canteen.

Having refreshed himself, he touched a patent lighter to another
cigarette, chose a direction at random, and spurred his pony into a
canter. The beast held to the pace until the ascent of a low but steep
ridge brought him down to a walk. With the change of gait the hunter
paused in the act of lighting a fresh cigarette, to gaze up at the
sapphire sky. The air was reverberating with a muffled sound like
distant thunder. Yet the crystal-clear dome above him showed no trace
of a cloud all across from the magnificent snowy ranges on the east
and north to the sparsely wooded mountains and sage-gray mesas to the
south and west.

"Can't be thunder," he murmured--"no sign of a storm. Must be a
stream. Ah! cool, fresh water!"

The sharp-roweled spurs goaded the pony up over the round of the ridge
as fast as he could scramble. At the top he broke into a lope and
raced headlong down the other side of the ridge through the tall
brush. The reverberating sound of water was clearer but still muffled
and distant.

The rider let his reins hang slack and recklessly dug in his spurs.
The pony leaped ahead with still greater speed and burst out of the
brush on to a narrow open slope that led down to the brink of a cañon.
The hunter saw first the precipice on the far side of the yawning
chasm--then the near edge, seemingly, to his startled gaze, right
under his horse's forefeet. He was dashing straight at the frightful
abyss.

A yell of terror burst from his lips, and he sought to fling himself
backwards and sideways out of the saddle. His instinctive purpose was
to fall to the ground and clutch the grass tufts. But in the same
moment that he tried to throw himself off, the nimble pony swerved to
the left so abruptly that the man's effort served only to keep himself
balanced on the saddle. Had he remained erect or flung himself to the
other side he must have been hurled off and down over the precipice.

Nor was the danger far from past. Carried on down the slope by the
momentum of their headlong rush, the plunging pony "skidded" to the
very brink of the precipice. Though the man shrank down and sought to
avert his face, he caught a glimpse of the black depths below them as,
snorting with fear, the pony wrenched himself around on the rim shelf
of the edge.

For an instant--an instant that was an age of sickening suspense to
his rider--the pony toppled. But before the man could shriek out his
horror, the agile beast had recovered his balance and was scrambling
around, away from the edge. He plunged a few yards up the slope, and
stopped, wheezing and blowing.

The man flung the reins over the pony's head and slipped to the
ground. For a minute or longer he lay outstretched, limp and
white-faced. When he looked up, the pony was stolidly cropping a tuft
of grass. Beasts are not often troubled with imagination. The hunter
remembered his brandy flask. After two long pulls at its contents, the
vivid coloring began to return to his cheeks.

He rose to his feet and walked down to a ledge on the brink of the
precipice with an air of bravado. But when he looked over into the
chasm, he quickly shrank back and crouched on his hands and knees.
Before again peering over he stretched himself out flat on the level
ledge and grasped an out-jutting point of rock.

Beneath his dizzy eyes the precipitous sides of the cañon dropped away
seemingly into the very bowels of the earth,--far down in sheer
unbroken walls of black rock for hundreds and thousands of feet. He
flattened closer to the rock on which he lay, and sought to pierce
with his gaze the blue-black shadows of the stupendous rift. Every
nerve in his body tingled; his ankles ached with the exquisite pain of
that overpowering sight.

The chasm was so narrow and its depth so great that only in one place
did the noonday sun strike down through its gloomy abyss to the
bottom. At that single spot he could distinguish the foam and flash of
the rushing waters, but elsewhere his only evidence of the sunken
torrent beneath him was the ceaseless reverberations that came rolling
up out of the depths.

"_Mon Dieu!_" he muttered. "To think I came so near--!... Must be what
they call Deep Cañon."

He crept away from the brink. As he rose to his feet his trembling
fingers automatically placed a cigarette between his lips and applied
the patent lighter. Soothed by the narcotic, he stood gazing across at
the far side of the cañon while he sucked in and slowly exhaled the
smoke. With the last puff he touched a fresh cigarette to the butt of
the first, thrust it between his lips, and snipped the cork stub over
the edge into the cañon.

"There you are--take that!" he mocked the abyss.

As he turned away he drew out an extremely thin gold watch. The
position of the hour hand brought a petulant frown to his white
forehead. He hastened to mount his pony. Short as had been the rest,
the wiry little animal had regained his wind and strength. Stung by
the spurs, he plunged up the side of the ridge and loped off along
its level top, parallel with the cañon.

The hunter drew his rifle from its saddle sheath and began to
scrutinize the country before him in search of game. A pair of
weather-beaten antlers so excited him that he even forgot to maintain
his chain of cigarettes. His dark eyes shone bright and eager and his
full red lips grew tense in resolute lines that completely altered the
previous laxity of his expression.

He had covered nearly a mile when he was rewarded for his alertness by
a glimpse of a large animal in the chaparral thicket before him. He
drew rein to test the wind in approved book hunter fashion. There was
not a breath of air stirring. The mesa lay basking in the dry, hot
stillness of the July afternoon. He set the safety catch of his rifle,
ready for instant firing, stretched himself flat on his pony's neck,
and started on.

The animal in the thicket moved slowly to the right, as if grazing. At
frequent intervals the hunter caught glimpses of its roan side, but
could not see its head or the outline of its body. At seventy-five
yards, fearful that his game might take fright and bolt, he turned his
horse sideways, and slipped down to aim his rifle across the saddle.
It was his first deer. He waited, twitching and quivering with "buck
fever."

Part of the fore quarters of the animal became visible to his excited
gaze through a small gap in the screening bushes. The muzzle of his
rifle wobbled all around the mark. Unable to steady it, he caught the
sights as they wavered into line, and pulled the trigger.

The report of the shot was followed by a loud _bawl_ and a violent
crashing in the thicket. There could be no doubt that the animal had
been hit and was seeking to escape. It was running across the top of
the ridge towards the cañon. The hunter sprang around the head of his
pony and threw up his rifle, which had automatically reloaded itself.
As it came to his shoulder, the wounded animal burst out of cover. It
was a yearling calf.

But the sportsman knew that he had shot a deer, and a deer was all he
saw. He was now fairly shaking with the "fever." His finger crooked
convulsively on the automatic firing lever. Instantly a stream of
bullets began to pour from the wildly wavering muzzle, and empty
shells whirred up from the ejector like hornets.

Before the hunter could realize what was happening, his magazine was
exhausted, the last cartridge fired, and the shell flipped out. But he
paid no heed to this. His eyes were on the fleeing calf. His
cartridges were smokeless. Through the slight haze above his rifle
muzzle he saw the animal pitch forward and fall heavily upon the round
of the ridge. It did not move.

Tugging at the bridle to quicken his horse's pace, he hastened forward
to examine his game. He was still so excited that he was almost upon
the outstretched carcass before he noticed the odd scar on its side.
He bent down and saw that the mark was a cattle brand seared on the
hide with a hot iron.

His first impulse was to jump on his pony and ride off. He was about
to set his foot in the stirrup when the apprehensive glance with which
he was peering around shifted down to the cañon. His gaze traveled
back from the near edge of the chasm, up the two hundred yards of
slope, and rested on the yearling as though estimating its weight.

It was a fat, thoroughbred Hereford. He could not lift it on his pony,
and he had no rope to use as a drag-line. He shook his head. But the
pause had given him time to recover from his panic. He shrugged his
shoulders, drew a silver-handled hunting knife, and awkwardly set
about dressing his kill.



CHAPTER II

A YEARLING SOLD


Three riders came galloping along the ridge towards the hunter. At
sight of his pony the grizzled cowman in the lead signed to his
companions and came to a sudden stop behind a clump of service-berry
bushes. The others swerved in beside him, the bowlegged young puncher
on the right with his hand at his hip.

"Jumping Jehosaphat!" he exulted. "We shore have got him, Mr. Knowles,
the blasted--" His thin lips closed tight to shut in the oath as he
turned his gaze on the lovely flushed face of the girl beside him.
When his cold gray eyes met hers they lighted with a glow like that of
fire through ice.

"You better stay here, Miss Chuckie," he advised. "We're going to cure
that rustler."

"But, Kid, what if--No, no! wait!" she cried at sight of his drawn
Colt's. "Daddy, stop him! The man may not be a rustler."

"You heard the shooting," answered the cowman.

"Yes, but he may have been after a deer," answered the girl, lifting
her lithe figure tiptoe in the stirrups of her man's saddle to peer
over the bushes.

"Deer?" rejoined the puncher. "Who'd be deer-hunting in July?"

"Then a bear. He fired fast enough," remarked the girl.

"Not much chance of that round here," said the cowman. "Still, it
might be. At any rate, Kid, this time I want you to wait for me to ask
questions _before_ you cut loose."

"If he don't try any funny business," qualified the puncher.

"Course," assented Knowles. "Chuckie, you best stay back here."

"Oh, no, Daddy. There's only one man and between you and Kid--"

"_Sho!_ Come on, then, if you're set on it. Kid, you circle to the
right."

The puncher wheeled his horse and rode off around the chaparral. The
girl and Knowles, after a short wait, advanced upon the hunter. They
were soon within a few yards of him and in plain view. His pony
stopped browsing and raised its head to look at them. But the man was
stooped over, with his face the other way, and the incessant,
reverberating roar of the cañon muffled the tread of their horses on
the dusty turf.

The puncher crashed through the corner of the thicket and pulled up on
the top of the slope immediately opposite the hunter. The latter
sprang to his feet. The puncher instantly covered him with his
long-barreled revolver and snapped tersely: "Hands up!"

"My--ante!" gasped the hunter. "A--a road agent!"

But he did not throw up his hands. With the rash bravery of
inexperience, he dropped his knife and snatched out his automatic
pistol. On the instant the puncher's big revolver roared. The pistol
went spinning out of the hunter's hand. Through the smoke of the shot
the puncher leveled his weapon.

"Put up your hands!--put them up!" screamed the girl, urging her horse
forward.

The hunter obeyed, none too soon. For several moments he stood rigid,
glaring half dazed at the revolver muzzle and the cool hard face
behind it. Then slowly he twisted about to see who it was had warned
him. The girl had ridden up within a few feet.

"You--you _tenderfoot_!" she flung at him. "Are you locoed? Hadn't you
any more sense than to do that? Why, if Daddy hadn't told Mr. Gowan to
wait--"

"You shore would have got yours, you--rustler!" snapped the puncher.
"It was you, though, Miss Chuckie--your being here."

"But he's not a rustler, Kid," protested the girl. "Where are your
eyes? Look at his riding togs. If they're not tenderfoot, howling
tenderfoot--!"

"Just the same, honey, he's shot a yearling," said Knowles, frowning
at the culprit. "Suppose you let me do the questioning."

"Ah--pardon me," remarked the hunter, rebounding from apprehension to
easy assurance at sight of the girl's smile. "I would prefer to be
third-degreed by the young lady. Permit me to salute the Queen of the
Outlaws!"

He bent over the fingers of one hand to raise his silver-banded
sombrero by its high peak. It left his head--and a bullet left the
muzzle of the puncher's revolver. A hole appeared low down in the side
of the sombrero.

"That'll do, Kid," ordered the cowman. "No more hazing, even if he is
a tenderfoot."

"Tenderfoot?" replied Gowan, his mouth like a straight gash across his
lean jaws. "How about his drawing on me--and how about your yearling?
That bullet went just where it ought to 've gone with his hat down on
his head."

There was no jesting even of the grimmest quality in the puncher's
look and tone. He was very cool and quiet--and his Colt's was leveled
for another shot.

The hunter thrust up his hands as high as he could reach.

"You--you surely can't intend to murder me!" he stammered, staring from
the puncher to the cowman. "I'll pay ransom--anything you ask! Don't let
him shoot me! I'm Lafayette Ashton--I'll pay thousands--anything! My
father is George Ashton, the great financier!"

"New York?" queried Knowles.

"No, no, Chicago! He--If only you'll write to him!"

The girl burst into a ringing laugh. "Oh!" she cried, the moment she
could speak, "Oh, Daddy! don't you see? He really thinks we're a bunch
of wild and woolly bandits!"

The hunter looked uncertainly from her dimpled face to Gowan's ready
revolver. Turning sharply about to the cowman, he caught him in a
reluctant grin. With a sudden spring, he placed the girl between
himself and the scowling puncher. Behind this barrier of safety he
swept off his hat and bowed to the girl with an exaggerated display of
politeness that hinted at mockery.

"So it's merely a cowboy joke," he said. "I bend, not to the Queen of
the Outlaws, but to the Princess of the Cows!"

Her dimples vanished. She looked over his head with the barest shade
of disdain in her expression.

"The joke came near to being on us," she said. "Kid, put up your gun.
A tenderfoot who has enough nerve and no more sense than to draw when
you have the drop on him, you've hazed him enough."

Gowan sullenly reloaded his Colt's and replaced it in its holster.

"That's right," said Knowles; but he turned sharply upon the offender.
"Look here, Mr. Ashton, if that's your name--there's still the matter
of this yearling. Shooting stock in a cattle country isn't any
laughing matter."

"But, I say," replied the hunter, "I didn't know it was your cow,
really I didn't."

"Doesn't make any difference whose brand was on the calf. Even if it
had been a maverick--"

"But that's it!" interrupted Ashton. "I didn't see the brand--only
glimpses of the beast in the chaparral. I thought it a deer until
after it fell and I came up to look."

"You shore did," jeered Gowan. "That's why you was hurrying to yank
off the hide. No chance of proving a case on you with the brand down
in Deep Cañon."

"Indeed no," replied Ashton, drawing a trifle closer to the girl's
stirrup. "You are quite wrong--quite. I was dressing the animal to
take it to my camp. Because I had mistaken it for a deer was no reason
why I should leave it to the coyotes."

"What business you got hunting deer out of season?" questioned
Knowles.

"Pardon me, but are you the game warden?" asked Ashton, with a
supercilious smile.

"Never you mind about that," rejoined the cowman. "Just you answer my
question."

Ashton shrugged, and replied in a bored tone: "I fail to see that it
is any of your affair. But since you are so urgent to learn--I prefer
to enjoy my sport before the rush of the open season."

"Don't you know it's against the law?" exclaimed the girl.

"Ah--as to that, a trifling fine--" drawled the hunter, again
shrugging.

"Humph!" grunted Knowles. "A fine might get you off for deer. Shooting
stock, though, is a penitentiary offense--when the criminal is lucky
enough to get into court."

"Criminal!" repeated Ashton, flushing. "I have explained who I am. My
father could buy out this entire cattle country, and never know it.
I'll do it myself, some day, and turn the whole thing into a game
preserve."

"When you do," warned Gowan, "you'd better hunt a healthier climate."

"What we're concerned with now," interposed Knowles, "is this
yearling."

"The live or the dead one, Daddy?" asked the girl, her cheeks
dimpling.

"What d'you--Aw--_haw! haw! haw!_--The live or the dead one! Catch
that, Kid? The live or the dead one! _Haw! haw! haw!_"

The cowman fairly roared with laughter. Neither of the young men
joined in his hilarious outburst. Gowan waited, cold and unsmiling.
Ashton stiffened with offended dignity.

"I told you that the shooting of the animal was unintentional," he
said. "I shall settle the affair by paying you the price usually asked
for veal."

"You will?" said the cowman, looking down at the indignant tenderfoot
with a twinkle in his mirth-reddened eyes. "Well, we don't usually
sell veal on the range. But I'll let you have this yearling at cutlet
prices. Fifty dollars is the figure."

"Why, Daddy," interrupted the girl, "half that would be--"

"On the hoof, yes; but he's buying dressed veal," broke in the cowman,
and he smiled grimly at the culprit. "Fifty dollars is cheap for a
deer hunter who goes round shooting up the country out of season. He
can take his choice--pay for his veal or make a trip to the county
seat."

"That's talking, Mr. Knowles," approved Gowan. "We'll corral him at
Stockchute in that little log calaboose. He'll have a peach of a time
talking the jury out of sending him up for rustling."

"This is an outrage--rank robbery!" complained Ashton. "Of course you
know I will pay rather than be inconvenienced by an interruption of
my hunting." He thrust his slender hand into his pocket, and drew it
out empty.

"Dead broke!" jeered Gowan.

Ashton shrugged disdainfully. "I have money at my camp. If that is not
enough to pay your blackmail, my valet has gone back to the railway
with my guide for a remittance of a thousand dollars, which must have
come on a week ago."

"Your camp is at the waterhole on Dry Fork," stated Knowles. "Saw a
big smoke over there--tenderfoot's fire. Well, it's only five miles,
and we can ride down that way. We'll go to your camp."

"Ye-es?" murmured Ashton, his ardent eyes on the girl. "Miss--er--Chuckie,
it is superfluous to remark that I shall vastly enjoy a cross-country
ride with you."

"Oh, really!" she replied.

Heedless of her ironical tone, he turned a supercilious glance on
Knowles. "Yes, and at the same time your papa and his hired man can
take advantage of the opportunity to deliver my veal."

"What's that?" growled the cowman, flushing hotly.

But the girl burst into such a peal of laughter that his scowl relaxed
to an uncertain smile.

"Well, what's the joke, honey?" he asked.

"Oh! oh! oh!" she cried, her blue eyes glistening with mirthful
tears. "Don't you see he's got you, Daddy? You didn't sell him his
meat on the hoof. You've got to dress and deliver his cutlets."

"By--James!" vowed Gowan. "Before I'll butcher for such a knock-kneed
tenderfoot I'll see him, in--"

"Hold your hawsses, Kid," put in Knowles. "The joke's on me. You go on
and look for that bunch of strays, if you want to. But I'm not going
to back up when Chuckie says I'm roped in."

Gowan looked fixedly at Ashton and the girl, swore under his breath,
and swung to the ground. He came down beside the calf with the
waddling step of one who has lived in the saddle from early childhood.
Knowles joined him, and they set to work on the calf without paying
any farther heed to the tenderfoot.

Ashton, after fastidiously wiping his hands on a wisp of grass, placed
his hunting knife in his belt and his rifle in its saddle sheath. He
next picked up his pistol, but after a single glance at the side
plate, smashed in by Gowan's first shot, he dropped the ruined weapon
and rather hurriedly mounted his pony.

The girl had faced away from the partly butchered carcass. As Ashton
rode around alongside, her pony started to walk away. Instead of
reining in, she glanced demurely at Ashton, and called over her
shoulder: "Daddy, we'll be riding on ahead. You and Kid have the
faster hawsses."

"All right," acquiesced Knowles, without pausing in his work.

Gowan said nothing; but he glanced up at the jaunty back of the
tenderfoot with a look of cold enmity.



CHAPTER III

QUEEN OF WHAT?


Heedless of the men behind him, Ashton rode off with his ardent gaze
fixed admiringly upon his companion. The more he looked at her the
more astonished and gratified he was to have found so charming a girl
in this raw wilderness.

As a city man, he might have considered the healthy color that glowed
under the tan of her cheeks a trifle too pronounced, had it not been
offset by the delicate mold of her features. Her eyes were as blue as
alpine forget-me-nots.

Though she sat astride and the soft coils of her chestnut hair were
covered with a broad-brimmed felt hat, he was puzzled to find that
there really was nothing of the Wild West cowgirl in her costume and
bearing. Her modest gray riding dress was cut in the very latest
style. If her manner differed from that of most young ladies of his
acquaintance, it was only in her delightful frankness and total
absence of affectation. Yet she could not be a city girl on a visit,
for she sat her horse with the erect, long-stirruped, graceful,
yielding seat peculiar to riders of the cattle ranges.

"Do you know," he gave voice to his curiosity, as she directed their
course slantingly down the ridge away from Deep Cañon, "I am simply
dying to learn, Miss Chuckie--"

"Perhaps you had better make it 'Miss Knowles,'" she suggested, with a
quiet smile that checked the familiarity of his manner.

"Ah, yes--pardon me!--'Miss Knowles,' of course," he murmured. "But,
you know, so unusual a name--"

"You mean Chuckie?" she asked. "It formerly was quite common in the
West--was often used as a nickname. My real name is Isobel. I
understand that Chuckie comes from the Spanish Chiquita."

"Chiquita!" he exclaimed. "But that is not a regular name. It is only
a term of endearment, like Nina. And you say Chuckie comes from
Chiquita? Chiquita--dear one!"

His large dark eyes glowed at her brilliant with audacious admiration.
Her color deepened, but she replied with perfect composure: "You see
why I prefer to be addressed as 'Miss Knowles'--by you."

"Yet you permitted that common cowpuncher to call you Miss Chuckie."

The girl smiled ironically. "For one thing, Mr. Ashton, I have known
Kid Gowan over eight years, and, for another, he is hardly a _common_
cowpuncher."

"He looks ordinary enough to me."

"Well, well!" she rallied. "I should have thought that even to the
innocent gaze of a tenderfoot--Let me hasten to explain that the
common or garden variety of cowshepherd is to be distinguished in many
respects from his predecessor of the Texas trail."

"Texas trail?" he rejoined. "Now I know you're trying to string me.
This Gowan can't be much older than I am."

The girl dropped her bantering tone, and answered soberly: "He is only
twenty-five, and yet he is a full generation older than you. He was
born and raised in a cow camp. He is one of the few men of the type
that remain to link the range of today with the vanished world of the
cattle frontier."

"Yet you say that the fellow is only my age?"

"In years, yes. But in type he belongs to the generation that is
past--the generation of longhorns, long drives, long Colt's, and short
lives; of stampedes, and hats like yours, badmen, and Injins."

"Surely you cannot mean that this--You called him 'Kid.'"

"Kid Gowan," she confirmed. "Yes, he holds to the old traditions even
in that. There are six notches on the hilt of his 'gun,' if you count
the two little ones he nicked for his brace of Utes."

"What! He is a real Indian fighter, like Kit Carson?"

"Oh, no, it was merely a band of hide hunters that came over the line
from Utah, and Mr. Gowan helped the game warden run them back to their
reservation."

"He actually killed two of them?"

"Yes," replied the girl, her gravity deepening to a concerned frown.
"The worst of it is that I'm not altogether certain it was necessary.
Men out here, as a rule, think much too little of the life of an
Indian."

"Ah!" murmured Ashton. "Two Indians. But didn't you speak of six
notches?"

"Six," confirmed the girl, her brow partly clearing. "The others were
different. Three were rustlers. The sheriff's posse overtook them.
Both sides were firing. Kid circled around and shot three. He happened
to have a long-range rifle. Daddy says they threw up their hands when
the first one fell; but Kid explained to me that he was too far away
to see it."

"Ah!" murmured Ashton the second time, and he put up his hand to the
hole in the front of his sombrero.

"The last was two years ago," went on the girl. "There was a dispute
over a maverick. Kid was tried and acquitted on his plea of
self-defense. There were no witnesses. He claimed that the other man
drew first. Two empty shells were found in the other man's revolver,
and only one in Kid's. That cleared him."

Ashton took off his hat and stared at the holes where the heavy
forty-four bullet had gone in and gone out. He was silent.

"You see, poor Kid has been unfortunate," remarked the girl, as she
headed her pony down over the edge of the mesa. "That time with the
rustlers, all the posse were firing, and he just happened to be the
one that got the best aim; and the time with the Indians, I'm sure he
did not shoot to kill. It just happened that way. He told me so
himself."

Ashton ran his tongue over his lip. "Yes--I suppose so," he muttered.

"Kid has all the good qualities and only a few of the faults of the
old-time cowboys," went on the girl. "He is almost fiercely loyal to
Daddy's interests. That's why he led a raid on a sheep outfit, four
years ago, when almost half of a large flock were run over into Deep
Cañon--poor innocent beasts! Daddy was furious with Kid; but there was
no legal proof as to who were members of the attacking party, and the
sheep were destroying our range. All of Daddy's cattle would have
starved."

"He was not punished?" murmured Ashton.

"Daddy could not be expected to discharge him, could he, when Kid did
it to save our range? You see, it was just because he was so very
loyal. You must not think from these things that he--It is true he is
suspicious of strangers, but he always has been very kind and gentle
to me. I am very fond of him."

"You are?" exclaimed Ashton, stirred from his uneasy depression. "I
should hardly have thought him the kind to interest a girl like you."

"Really?" she bantered. "Why not? I have lived on the range ever since
I was fourteen."

He stared at her incredulously. "Since you were fourteen?"

"For nine years," she added, smiling at his astonishment.

"But--it can't be," he protested, his eyes on her stylish costume. "At
least, not all the time."

She nodded at him encouragingly. "So you _can_ see--a little. Nearly
all my winters have been spent in Denver, except one in Europe."

"Europe?" he repeated.

"We didn't cross in a cattle boat," she flashed back at him, dimpling
mischievously. "Nor did I go as the Queen of the Rancho, or of the
Roundup, or even of the Wild and Woolly Outlaw Band."

He flushed with mortification. "I am only too well aware, Miss
Knowles, how you must regard me."

"Oh, I do not regard you at all--as yet," she bantered. "But of course
I could not expect you to know that Daddy's sister is one of the
Sacred Thirty-six."

"Sacred--? Is that one of the orders of nuns?"

"None whatever," she punned. In the same moment she drew a most
solemn looking face. "My deah Mistah Ashton, I will have you to
understand my reference was to that most select coterie which
comprises Denver's Real Society."

"Indeed!" he said, with a subtle alteration in his tone and manner.
"You say that your aunt is one of--"

"My aunt by adoption," she corrected.

"Adoption?"

"I am not Daddy's natural daughter. He adopted me," explained the girl
in her frank way.

"Yes?" asked Ashton, plainly eager to learn more of her history.

Without seeming to observe this, she adroitly balked his curiosity--"So,
you see, Daddy's sister is only my aunt by adoption. Still, she has been
very, very good to me; though I love Daddy and this free outdoor
life so much that I insist on coming back home every spring."

"Ah, yes, I see," he replied. "Really, Miss Knowles, you must think me
a good deal of a dub."

"Oh, well, allowances should be made for a tenderfoot," she bantered.

"At least I recognized your queenliness, even if at first I did
mistake what you were queen of," he thrust back.

"So you still insist I'm a queen? Of what, pray?"

"Of Hearts!" he answered with fervor.

His daring was rewarded with a lovely blush. But she was only
momentarily disconcerted.

"I am not so sure of that," she replied. "Though it's not Queen of
Spades, because I do not have to work; and it can't be Diamonds,
because Daddy is no more than comfortably well to do--only six
thousand head of stock. But as for Hearts--No, I'm sure it must be
Clubs; I do so love to knock around. Really, if ever they break up
this range, it will break my heart same time."

"Break up the range? How do you mean?"

"Put it under irrigation and turn it into orchards and farms, as they
have done so many places here on the Western Slope. You know, Colorado
apples and peaches are fast becoming famous even in Europe."

"I do not wonder, not in the least--if I am to judge from a certain
sample of the Colorado peach," he ventured.

This time she did not blush. "I am quite serious, Mr. Ashton," she
reproved him. "Daddy owns only five sections. The rest of his range is
public land. If settlers should come in and homestead it, he would
have to quit the cattle business. You cannot realize how fearfully we
are watching the irrigation projects--all the Government reclamation
work, and the private dams, too. There seems to be no water that can
be put on Dry Mesa, yet the engineers are doing such wonderful things
these days."

Ashton straightened on his saddle. "That is quite true, Miss Knowles.
You know, I myself am an engineer."

"Oh!" she exclaimed in dismay. "You, an engineer? Have you come here
to see if our mesa can be irrigated?"

"No, indeed, no, I shall not do that," he replied. "I have not the
slightest thought of such a project. I am merely out for sport."

She eyed him uncertainly. "But--We get all the reports--There is an
Ashton connected with that wonderful Zariba Dam, just being finished
in Arizona."

"That is my father. He is interested in it with a Mr. Leslie. They are
financing the project. But I have nothing to do with it, nothing
whatever, I assure you. The engineer is another man, a fellow
named--"

He paused as if unable to remember. The girl looked at him with a
shade of disappointment in her clear eyes.

"A Mr. Blake--Thomas Blake," she supplied the name. "I thought you
might have known him."

"Ah--Blake?" he murmured hesitatingly. "Why, yes, I did at one time
have somewhat of an acquaintance with him."

"You did?" she cried, her eyes brilliant with excitement. "Oh, tell
me! I--" She faltered under his surprised stare, and went on rather
lamely: "You see, I--we have been immensely interested in the Zariba
Dam. The reports all describe it as an extraordinary work of
engineering. And so we have been curious to learn something about the
engineer."

"But if you're so opposed to irrigation projects?" he thrust.

"That makes no difference," she parried. "We--Daddy and I--cannot but
admire such a remarkable engineer."

Ashton shrugged. "The dam was a big thing. I fail to see why you
should admire Blake just because he happened to blunder on the idea
that solved the difficulty."

"You do not like him," she said with frank directness.

He hesitated and looked away. When he replied it was with evident
reluctance: "No, I do not. He is--You would hardly admire him
personally, even though he did bully Genevieve Leslie into marrying
him."

"He is married?" exclaimed the girl.

"No wonder you are surprised," said Ashton. "It was the most amazing
thing imaginable--she the daughter of H. V. Leslie, one of our
wealthiest financiers, and he a rough, uncouth drunkard."

"Drunkard?" almost screamed the girl. "No, no, not drunkard! I cannot
believe it!"

"He certainly was one until just before Genevieve married him,"
insisted Ashton. "I hear he has managed to keep sober since."

"O-o-oh!" sighed Miss Isobel, making no effort to conceal her vast
relief. She attempted a smile. "I am so glad to hear that he is all
right now. Of course he must be!... You say he married an heiress?"

"She is worth three millions in her own right, and Leslie is as daft
over him as she is. Leslie and my father are the ones who backed him
on the Zariba Dam."

"How interesting! And I suppose Mr. Blake is a Western man. So many of
the best engineers come from the West."

Ashton looked at her suspiciously. He could not make out her interest
in Blake. She apparently had come to regard the engineer as a sort of
hero. Yet why should she continue to inquire about him, now that she
knew he was a married man?

"I'm sure I cannot tell you," he replied, somewhat stiffly. "The
fellow seems to have come from nowhere. Had it not been for an
accident, he would never have got within speaking distance of
Genevieve, but they happened to be shipwrecked together alone--on the
coast of Africa."

"Wrecked?--shipwrecked? How perfectly glorious!"

"I wouldn't mind it myself--with you!" he flashed back.

"I might," she bantered. "This Mr. Blake, I imagine, was hardly a
tenderfoot."

"No, he was a roughneck," muttered Ashton.

"You do not like him," she remarked the second time.

"Why should I, a low fellow like that? I've heard that he even brags
that he started in the Chicago slums."

The girl put her hand to her bosom. "In the--the Chicago slums!" she
half whispered.

"No wonder you are surprised," said Ashton. "Anyone would presume
that he would keep such a disgrace to himself. It shows what he
is--absolutely devoid of good taste."

"Is he--What does he look like?" she eagerly inquired.

Ashton shrugged. "Pardon me. I prefer not to talk any more about the
fellow."

Miss Isobel checked her curiosity. "Very well, Mr. Ashton." She looked
around, and suddenly flourished her leathern quirt. "Look--there are
Kid and Daddy trying to head us. Come on, if you want a race. I'm
going to beat them down to Dry Fork."



CHAPTER IV

DOWNHILL AND UP


The lash of the quirt fell with a swish on the flank of the girl's
pony. He did not wait for a second hint, but started down the steep
slope "on the jump." Before Ashton realized what was happening, his
own horse was following at the same breakneck pace.

Down plunged the two ponies--down, down, down the sharply pitched
mountain side, leaping logs and stones, crashing through brush,
scrambling or slithering stiff-legged down rock slides. It was a wild
race, a race that would have been utterly foolhardy with any other
horses than these mountain bred cow ponies. A single misstep would
have sent horse and rider rolling for yards, unless sooner brought up
against tree or rock.

Most of the color had left Ashton's cheeks, but his full lips were set
in resolute lines. His gaze alertly took in the ground before his
horse and at the same time the girl's graceful, swaying figure.
Fortunately he knew enough to let his horse pick his own way. But such
a way as it was! Had not the two animals been as surefooted as goats
and as quick as cats, both must have pitched head over heels, not
once, but a score of times.

They had leaped down over numbers of rocks and logs and ledges, and
the girl had not cast back a single glance to see if Ashton was
following. But as they plunged down an open slope she suddenly twisted
about and flung up a warning hand.

"Here's a jump!" she cried--as though they had not been jumping every
few yards since the beginning of that mad descent.

Hardly had she faced about again when her pony leaped and dropped with
her clear out of sight. Ashton gasped and started to draw rein. He was
too late. Three strides brought his horse to a ledge fully six feet
high. The beast leaped over the edge without making the slightest
effort to check himself.

Ashton uttered a startled cry, but poised himself for the shock with
the cleverness of a skillful rider. His pony landed squarely, and at
once started on again as if nothing unusual had happened.

The girl was already racing down the lower slope, which was more
moderate, or rather, less immoderate than that above the ledge. She
looked around and waved her hand gayly when she saw that Ashton had
kept his seat.

The salute so fired him that he gave his pony the spur and dashed
recklessly down to overtake her. At last he raced alongside and a
little past her. She looked at his overridden pony and drew rein.

"Hold on," she said. "Better pull up a bit. You don't want to blow
your hawss. 'Tisn't everyone can take that jump as neatly as he did."

"But the others?" he panted--"they'll beat us!"

"They cut down to the right. It's nothing to worry about if they do
head us. They've got the best hawsses. We'll jog the rest of the
way."

"Of course," he hastened to agree, "if you prefer."

"I'd prefer to lope uphill and down, but--" she nodded towards his
pony's heaving flanks--"no use riding a willing hawss to death."

"No danger of that with this old nag. He's tough as a mule," Ashton
assured her, though he followed her example by pulling his mount in to
a walk.

"A mule knows enough to balk when he's got enough," she informed him.

He did not reply. With the lessening of his excitement habit sent his
hand to his open packet of cigarettes. He had not smoked since before
shooting the calf. As they came down into the shallow valley between
the foot of the mesa and a parallel line of low rocky hills he could
wait no longer. His lighter was already half raised to the gilt-tipped
cigarette when it was checked by etiquette. He bowed to the girl as a
matter of form.

"Ah, pardon me--if you have no objections," he said.

"I have," was her unexpected reply.

"Er--what?" he asked, his finger on the spring of the lighter.

"You inquired if I have any objections," she answered. "I told you the
truth. I dislike cigarettes most intensely."

"But--but--" he stammered, completely taken aback, "don't your cowboys
all smoke?"

"Not cigarettes--where I ever see them," she said.

"And cigars or pipes?" he queried.

"One has to concede something to masculine weakness," she sighed.

"Unfortunately I have no cigars with me, not even at my camp, and a
pipe is so slow," he complained.

"Oh, pray, do not deprive yourself on my account," she said. "You'll
find the cut between those two hills about as short a way to your camp
as this one, if you prefer your cigarettes to my company."

"Crool maid!" he reproached, not altogether jestingly. He even looked
across at the gap through the hills to which she was pointing. Then he
saw the disdain in her blue eyes. He took the cigarette from his lips,
eyed it regretfully, and flung it away with a petulant fillip.

"There!" he said. Meeting her amused smile, he added in the injured
tone of a spoiled child. "You don't realize what a compliment that
is."

"What?--abstaining for a half hour or so? If I asked you to break off
entirely, and you did it, I would consider that a real compliment."

"I should say so!"

"But I am by no means sure that I would care to ask you," she
bantered.

"You're not? Why, may I inquire?"

"I do not like to make useless requests."

"Useless!" he exclaimed, his self-esteem stung by her raillery. "Do
you think I cannot quit smoking them?"

"I think you do not care to try."

Impulsively he snatched out a package of his expensive cigarettes and
tossed it over his shoulder. Another and another and still others
followed in rapid succession, until he had exhausted his supply.

"How's that?" he demanded her approval.

"Well, it's not so bad for a start-off," she answered with an absence
of enthusiasm that dashed him from his pose of self-abnegation.

"You don't realize what that means," he complained.

"It means, jilt Miss Nicotine in haste, and repent at leisure."

"You're ragging me! You ought to be particularly nice to me. I did it
for you."

"Thanks awfully. But I didn't ask you to do it, you know."

"Oh, now, that's hardly--when I did it because of what you said."

"Well, then, I promise to be nice to you until events do us part. That
will be in about five minutes. Over there is Dry Fork Gulch. The
waterhole is just down around this hill."

Ashton took his ardent gaze off the girl's face long enough to glance
to his left. He recognized the tremendous gorge in the face of the
mountain side that he had tried to ascend the previous day. It ran in
with a moderately inclined bottom for nearly a mile, and then scaled
up to the top of High Mesa in steep slopes and sheer ledges.

His eyes followed the dry gravelly creek bed around to the right, and
he nodded: "Yes, my camp is just over the corner of those crags. But
surely, Miss Knowles, you will not end our acquaintance there."

She met his appealing look with a level glance. "Seriously, Mr.
Ashton, don't you think you had better move camp to another section?
It seems to me you have done quite enough unseasonable deer hunting."

Without waiting for him to reply, she urged her horse into a lope. His
own mount was too jaded for a quick start. When he overtook the girl
she had rounded the craggy hill on their right and was in sight of a
scattered grove of boxelders below a dike of dark colored trap rock
that outcropped across the bed of the creek.

Above the natural dam made by this dike the valley was bedded up with
sand and large gravel washed down by the torrential rush of spring
freshets. Below it the same wild floods, leaping down in a twenty-foot
fall, had gouged out a pothole so wide and deep that it was never
empty of water even in the driest seasons.



CHAPTER V

INTO THE DEPTHS


At the top of the bank made by the dike the girl pointed with her
quirt down to the rock-rimmed pool edge where a pair of riders were
just swinging out of their saddles.

"Hello, Daddy! We're coming, Kid," she called, and she turned to
explain to Ashton. "They came around the other end of the hills; a
longer way but better going. How's this? Thought you said you were
camped here."

"Yes, of course. Don't you see the tent? It's right there among
the--Why, what--where is it?" cried Ashton, gaping in blank
amazement.

"We'll soon see," replied the girl.

Their horses were scrambling down the short steep slope to the pool,
where the other horses were drinking their fill of the cool water. The
two men watched Ashton's approach, Knowles with an impassive gaze,
Gowan with cold suspicion in his narrowed eyes.

"Well, honey," asked the cowman, "did you have him pulling leather?"

"No, and I didn't lose him, either," she replied, with a mischievous
glance at Gowan. "I took that jump-off where the white-cheeked steer
broke its neck. He took it after me without pulling leather."

"Huh!" grunted the puncher. "Mr. Tenderfoot shore is some rider. We're
waiting for him now to ride around and find that camp where we were to
deliver his veal."

Ashton stared with a puzzled, half-dazed expression from the tentless
trees beside him to the fore and hind quarters of veal wrapped in
slicker raincoats and fastened on back of the men's saddles.

"Well?" demanded Knowles. "Thought you said you were camped here."

"I am--that is, I--My tent was right there between those two trees,"
said Ashton. "You see, there are the twigs and leaves I had my valet
collect for my bed."

"Shore--valleys are great on collecting beds of leaves and sand and
bowlders," observed Gowan.

"There's his fireplace," said the girl, wheeling her horse through a
clump of wild rosebushes. "Yes, and he's right about the tent, too. It
is a bed. Here's a dozen cigarette boxes and--What's this, Mr. Ashton!
Looks as if someone had left a note for you."

"A note?" he muttered, slipping to the ground.

He ran over to the spot to which she was pointing. On a little pile of
stones, in front of where his tent had been pitched, a piece of
coarse wrapping paper covered with writing was fluttering in the light
breeze. He snatched it up and read the note with fast-growing
bewilderment.

"What is it?" sympathetically questioned the girl, quick to see that
he was in real trouble.

He did not answer. He did not even realize that she had spoken. With
feverish haste he caught up an opened envelope that had lain under the
paper. Drawn by his odd manner, Knowles and Gowan came over to stare
at him. He had torn a letter from the envelope. It was in typewriting
and covered less than a page, yet he gaped at it, reading and
re-reading the lines as if too dazed to be able to comprehend their
meaning.

Slowly the involved sentences burned their way into his consciousness.
As his bewilderment cleared, his concern deepened to dismay, and from
dismay to consternation. His jaw dropped slack, his face whitened, the
pupils of his eyes dilated.

"What is it? What's the matter?" exclaimed the girl.

"Matter?"--His voice was hoarse and strained. He crumpled the letter
in a convulsive grasp--"Matter? I'm ruined!--ruined! God!"

Knowles and the girl were both silent before the despair in the young
man's face. Gowan was more obtuse or else less considerate.

"Shore, you're plumb busted, partner," he ironically condoled. "Your
whole outfit has flown away on the wings of the morning. Hope you
won't tell us the pay for your veal has vamoosed with the rest."

"Oh, Kid, for shame!" reproved the girl. "Of course Daddy won't ask
for any pay--now."

Ashton burst into a jangling high-pitched laugh.

"No, no! there's still my pony and saddle and rifle and watch!" he
cried, half hysterically. "Take them! strip me! Here's my hat, too! I
paid forty-five dollars for it--silver band." He flung it on the
ground. "There's a hole in it--I wish the hole were through my head!"

"Now, now, look here, son. Keep a stiff upper lip," said Knowles.
"Don't act like you're locoed. It's all right about that veal, as
Chuckie says, and you oughtn't to make such a fuss over the loss of a
camp outfit."

"Camp outfit?" shrilled Ashton. "If that were all! if that were all!
What shall I do? Lost--all lost!--father--all! Ruined! Oh, my God!
What shall I do? Oh, my God! Oh--" Anguish and despair choked the cry
in his throat. He collapsed in a huddled, quivering heap.

"_Sho!_ It can't be as bad as that, can it?" condoled the cowman.

"Go away!" sobbed the prostrated man. "Go away! Take my pony--all!
Only leave me!"

"If ever I saw a fellow plumb locoed!" muttered Gowan, half
awe-struck.

"Maybe he'll come to his senses if we leave him," suggested Knowles.
He took a step towards Ashton. "All right, son, we'll go. But we'll
leave you half that veal, and we won't take your hawss. D'you want
help in looking for your outfit?"

Ashton shook his downbent head.

"Well, if you want to let the thieves get away with it, that's your
own lookout. You'd better strike back to the railroad."

"Go away! Leave me!" moaned Ashton.

"Gone to smash--clean busted!" commented Gowan, as he turned about to
go to his horse, his spurs jingling gayly.

Knowles followed him, shaking his head. The girl had been gazing at
Ashton with an expression that varied from sympathetic commiseration
to contemptuous pity. As her adopted father and Gowan mounted, she
rode over to them.

"Go on," she said. "I'll overtake you as soon as I've watered my
hawss."

"You're not going to speak to that kettle of mush again, Miss
Chuckie," remonstrated Gowan.

"Yes, I am, Kid, and you know you wouldn't stop me if you could. He
needs it. I'm glad you smashed his pistol. A rifle is not so handy."

Knowles stared over the bushes at the huddled figure on the ground.
"Look here, Chuckie, you can't mean that?"

"Yes," she insisted. "He is ready to do it right now, unless someone
throws him a rope and hauls him out of the slough."

"Lot of fuss over a tenderfoot you never saw before today," grumbled
Gowan.

"That's not like you, Kid," she reproached. "Besides, you don't want
the trouble of digging a grave. It would have to be deep, to keep out
the coyotes. Daddy, you're forgetting the veal."

"So I am," agreed the cowman. "Ride on, Kid. You'll be carrying most
weight."

The puncher reluctantly wheeled his horse and started down the bank of
the dry stream. Knowles unfastened the hind quarters of veal from
behind the cantle of his saddle, lifted them into a fork of one of the
low trees, and rode off after Gowan, folding up his blood-stained
slicker.

The girl at once slipped from her pony and walked quietly around to
the drooping, despairing man.

"Mr. Ashton," she softly began, "they have gone. I have stayed to find
out if there is anything I can do."

She paused for him to reply. His shoulders quivered, but he remained
silent. She went on soothingly: "You are all unstrung. The shock was
too sudden. It must have been a terrible one! Won't you tell me about
it? Perhaps that will make you feel better."

"As if anything could when I am ruined, utterly ruined!" he moaned.

"But how? Please tell me," she urged.

Slowly he raised his haggard face and looked up at her. There could be
no question but that she was full of sincere sympathy and concern for
him. Her eyes shone upon him with all the motherly tenderness that any
good woman, however young, has in her heart for those who suffer.

"It's all in this--this letter," he muttered brokenly. "Expected my
remittance in it--Got ruin! ruin!"

"It had been opened," suggested the girl. "Perhaps those who took your
outfit also took your remittance money."

"No, there wasn't any--not a cent! My valet had my written instructions
to open it and cash the money orders--that weren't there! He and the
guide--they came back. The letter had told them all, all! I was not
here. They took the outfit--the money--divided it. Left that note--they
had no more use for me.... Ruined! utterly ruined!"

"But if you wish us to run them down?"

"No--good riddance! What they took is less than what I owed them.
Ungrateful scoundrels!"

"That's it!" approved the girl. "Get up your spunk. Cuss, if you like.
Rip loose, good and hard. It will ease you off."

"It's no use," he groaned, slumping back into his posture of abject
dejection.

"Oh, come, now!" she encouraged. "You're a young, healthy man. What if
you have been bucked off this time? There are lots other hawsses in
Life's corral."

He hung his head lower.

She went on, in an altered tone: "Mr. Ashton, it is evident you have
been bred as a gentleman. I wish you to give me your word that you
will not put an end to yourself."

There was a prolonged pause. At last he stirred as if uneasy under her
steady gaze. He could not see her eyes, yet he seemed to feel them.
Twice he started to speak, but checked himself and hesitated. The
third time he muttered a reluctant, "I--will not."

"Good! I have your word," she replied. "I must go now. When you've
shaken yourself together a bit, come down to the ranch. You ride down
Dry Fork to the junction, and then three miles up Plum Creek. Daddy'll
be glad to put you up a few days until you can think of what to do to
get a new start. Good-by!"

She went back to her horse as lightfooted and graceful as an antelope.
But he did not look up after her, nor did he respond to her cordial
parting. For a long time after she rode away he continued to crouch as
she had left him, motionless, almost torpid with the immensity of his
loss.

The sun sank lower and lower. It touched the skyline of High Mesa and
dipped below. The shadow of twilight fell upon Dry Fork and the
waterhole. The man shivered and, as if afraid that the darkness would
rush upon him, hastily opened his clenched hand and smoothed out the
crumpled letter.

To his bloodshot eyes, the accusing words seemed to glare up at him in
letters of fire:

  Sir:

  We have been instructed by our client, Mr. George Ashton, to
  inform you that he has at last learned the full particulars of
  the manner in which you obtained possession of the plans of Mr.
  Thomas Blake, C.E., drawn by him for the competition on the then
  projected Michamac bridge; how you copied said plans and
  destroyed the originals, and was awarded the construction of
  said bridge on said copied plans presented by you as of your own
  device and invention; that you were awarded and did enjoy the
  office of Resident Engineer of said bridge during a period
  covering the greater part of the construction thereof, and
  received the full salary of said office, to and until said Blake
  took charge of said bridge, which had been imperilled by your
  incompetence; and said Blake, against your strenuous objections
  and opposition and at great personal risk, saved said bridge
  from destruction.

  Wherefore, because of the disgrace which you have, by reason of
  the aforesaid actions and conduct, brought upon his name, and
  because of various and sundry acts of disobedience, as well as
  your life of frivolity and dissipation,--our client has
  instructed us to inform you, that he has cut you off from him
  absolutely; that he has drawn a new will wherein the amount of
  your legacy is fixed at the sum of one ($1.00) dollar; that he
  will no longer make you an allowance in any sum whatever; that
  he no longer regards you as his son; that any communication
  addressed to him by you, either directly or indirectly, will not
  be received or read by him; and that he absolutely refuses to
  see you or to grant you a personal interview.

                                                Respectfully, etc.

The signature was that of his father's confidential lawyers, and
below, to the left, lest there be no possibility of misunderstanding,
were his name and address in full: "Mr. Lafayette Ashton, Stockchute,
Colorado."

Again he bent over with his head on his breast and the letter clutched
convulsively in his slender palm.

A bloodcurdling yell brought him to his feet with a sudden leap. He
still did not know the difference between the cry of a coyote and the
deeper note of a timber wolf. He hastily started a fire, and ran to
fetch his rifle from the saddle sheath. The pony was quietly munching
a wisp of grass as best he could with the bit in his mouth. The
unconcern of the beast reassured his master, who, however, filled the
magazine of his rifle before offsaddling.

Having hobbled the pony for the night, Ashton laid the rifle on the
rim of the pool, stripped, and dived in. He went down like a plummet,
reckless of the danger of striking some upjutting ledge. He may have
forgotten for the moment his word to the girl, or he may have
considered that it did not prevent him from courting death by
accident.

But, deeply as he dived, he failed to reach bottom. He came up,
puffing and blowing, and swam swiftly around the pool before
scrambling out to dress. The combined effect of the vigorous exercise,
the grateful coolness of the water, and the riddance of the day's dust
and sweat brought him ashore in a far less morbid frame of mind. Going
up the bank, he pulled the hind quarters of veal from the tree and
sliced off three or four ragged strips with his knife. After washing
them, he put them to broil over his smoky fire of green twigs. The
"cutlets" came off, one half raw and the other half burned to a crisp.
But he had not eaten since the early forenoon. He devoured the mess
without salt, ravenously. He topped off with the scant swallow of
brandy left in his flask.

Stimulated by the food and drink, he set about gathering a large heap
of wood. Three or four coyotes had approached his camp, attracted by
the scent of the calf meat. With the fading of twilight into night
they came in closer, making such a racket with their yelping and
wailing that he thought himself surrounded by a pack of ravenous
wolves.

He could not see how his pony was unconcernedly grazing within a few
yards of one of the cowardly beasts. Had the wistful singers been
timber wolves, the animal soon would have come hobbling in near the
fire; but Ashton did not know that. He flung on brush and crouched
down near the blaze, rifle in hand, peering out into the blackness.
Every moment he expected to hear that terrible cry of which he had
read, the death-scream of a horse, and then to hear the crunching of
bones between the jaws of the ferocious wolves.

He had spent the previous night alone in camp, peacefully sleeping.
But then the yells of the beasts of darkness had been far away, and
the walls of his tent had shut him in from the wild. Tonight his
nerves had been shattered by the terrible blow of his father's
repudiation. Worst of all, he had no tobacco with which to soothe
them.

His dread of the supposed wolf pack in a way eased the anguish of
his ruin by diverting his mind. But the lack of cigarettes served
only to put a more frightful strain on his overwrought nerves. He
felt it first in a vague discomfort that set his hands to groping
automatically through his pockets. The absence of the usual box
roused his consciousness, with a dismayed start, to the realization
that he was absolutely without his soothing drug. The absconding
guide and valet had taken the large store he had in camp, and, to
please Miss Knowles, he had flung away all that were left in his
pockets.

From vague fumbling he instantly concentrated his mind on an eager
search for a packet that might have been overlooked, either in his
pockets or around the camp. He could find none, nor even a single
cigarette. His nerves were now clamoring wildly for their soothing
poison. So great was the strain that it began to affect his mind. He
fancied that the wolf pack was closing in to attack him. Twice he
fired his rifle at imaginary eyes out in the darkness.

All the time the craving for nicotine increased in intensity, until he
was half frantic. Midnight found him, torch in hand, crawling around
on the ground where his tent had been pitched, hunting for cigarette
stubs. He had only to look close in order to find any number. Most
were no more than cork tips, but some had at least one puff left in
them, and a few had been only half smoked.

Beside the bed he came upon almost a handful, close together. By this
time his jangled nerves were "toning down." He became conscious of
great weariness. He stretched out on his leafy bed, and with his head
pillowed on his arm, luxuriously sucked in the drugging smoke.



CHAPTER VI

A TEST OF CALIBER


When he opened his eyes the sun was beating down into his face. He had
slept far into the morning. He stood up to stare around. His horse was
cropping the grass near the lower side of the grove. There was no sign
of any wolves. He walked over to his fireplace. The fire had burned to
ashes hours ago. He started a fresh one with his patent lighter, and
turned to where he had left the veal. It was gone.

He went a few steps farther, and found a bone gnawed clean of every
shred of meat and gristle. A fox is a far less cunning thief than a
coyote. The quantity of calf meat had alone saved his saddle and
bridle, and even at that, one of the bridle reins was slashed and the
stirrup leathers were gnawed. He looked from the white bone to the
saddle, and ripped out a half dozen vigorous Anglo-Saxon oaths. It was
not nice, but the explosion argued a far healthier frame of mind than
either his morbid hysteria of the previous afternoon or his frenzy of
the night.

After the outburst of anger had spent itself, he realized that he was
hungry. The feeling became acute when he remembered that he had
absolutely nothing on hand to eat. He hastened to saddle up. As he was
about to mount he paused to look uncertainly up the trail on which he
had thrown away the cigarettes. While he stood vacillating, his hand
went to his hip pocket and drew out the silver-cased brandy flask. He
looked at it, and its emptiness reminded him that he was thirsty. He
went down to the pool for a drink. Having filled his flask, he
returned up the bank and sprang into the saddle.

His horse, in fine fettle after the night's rest and grazing, started
off on the jump, cow pony fashion. Ashton gave him his head, and the
horse bore him at a steady lope down along the stream, crossing over
to the other bank of the dry bed, of his own volition, when the going
became too rough on the near side. The direction of the railway was
now off across the sagebrush flats to Ashton's right, but he allowed
his horse to continue on down the creek. About four miles from the
waterhole he approached a bunch of grazing cattle. He drew rein and
walked his horse past them, looking for a herder. There was none in
sight. The animals were on their home range. He rode on down the creek
at a canter.

A mile farther on, as he neared another scattered bunch of cattle,
something thwacked the dry ground a little in front and to the left of
him, throwing up a splash of sand and dust. His pony snorted and
leaped ahead at a quickened pace.

Ashton turned to look back at the spot--and instinctively ducked as a
bullet pinged past his ear so close that he felt the windage on his
cheek. He did not lack quickness of perception. He glanced up the open
slope to his left, and grasped the fact that someone was shooting at
him with a rifle from the crest of the ridge half a mile distant.

Instantly he flung himself flat on his pony's neck and dug in his
spurs. The pony bounded forward with a suddenness that spoiled the aim
of the third bullet. It whined past over the beast's haunches. The
fourth shot, best aimed of all, smashed the silver brandy flask in
Ashton's hip pocket. Had he been upright in the saddle, the
steel-jacketed bullet must have pierced him through the waist.

With a yell of terror, he flattened himself still closer to his pony's
neck and dug in his spurs at every jump. The beast was already going
at a pace that would have won most quarter-mile sprints. Just after
the fourth shot he swept in among the scattered bunch of cattle,
running at his highest speed. Still Ashton swung his sharp-roweled
spurs. He knew that the range of a high-power rifle is well over a
mile.

To his vast surprise, the shooting ceased the moment he raced into
line with the first steer. The short respite gave him time to recover
his wits.

As the pony sprinted clear of the last steer in the bunch, a fifth
bullet ranged close down over Ashton's head. He pulled hard on the
right rein and leaned the same way. The sixth shot burned the skin on
the pony's hip as he swerved suddenly towards the edge of the creek
channel. He made a wild leap out over the edge of the cut bank and
came plunging down on a gravel bar. At once he started to race along
the dry stream bed. But instead of spurring, Ashton now tugged at the
bridle.

The pony swung to the left and came to a halt close in under the bank.
Ashton cautiously straightened from his crouch. When erect he was just
high enough to see over the edge of the bank. Looking back and up the
ridge, he saw the figure of a man clearly outlined against the sky.
His lips closed in resolute lines; his dark eyes flashed. Jerking out
his rifle, he set the sight for fifteen hundred yards, and began
firing at the would-be murderer as coolly and steadily as a marksman.

Before he had pulled the trigger the third time the man leaped
sideways and knelt to return his fire. At once Ashton gripped his
rifle still more firmly and drew back the automatic lever. The
crackling discharge was like the fire of a miniature Maxim gun. Puffs
of dust spouted up all around the man on the ridge crest. He sprang to
his feet and ran back out of sight, jumping from side to side like an
Indian.

"Ho!" shouted Ashton. "He's running! I made him run!"

He sat up very erect in his saddle, staring defiantly at the place
where the murderer had disappeared.

"The coward! I made him run!" he exulted.

He shifted his grip on his rifle, and the heat of the barrel reminded
him that he had emptied the magazine. He reloaded the weapon to its
fullest capacity, and stood up in his stirrups to stare at the ridge
crest. The murderer did not reappear. Ashton's exultance gave place to
disappointment. He was more than ready to continue the duel.

He rode down the creek, searching for a place to ascend the cut bank.
But by the time he came to a slope he had cooled sufficiently to
realize the foolishness of bravado. Not unlikely the murderer was
lying back out of sight, ready to shoot him when he came up out of the
creek. He reflected, and decided that the going was quite good enough
in the bottom of the creek bed. He rode on down the channel, over the
gravel bars, at an easy canter.

After a half mile the bank became so low and the creek bed so sandy
that he turned up on to the dry sod. As he did so he kept his eye
warily on the now distant ridge. But no bullet came pinging down after
him.

Instead, he heard the thud of galloping hoofs, and twisted about just
in time to see a rider top a rise a short distance in front of him.
He snapped down his breech sight and faced the supposed assailant with
the rifle ready at his shoulder. Almost as quickly he lowered the
weapon and snatched off his sombrero in joyful salute. The rider was
Miss Knowles.

She waved back gayly and cantered up to him, her lovely face aglow
with cordial greeting.

"Good noon!" she called. "So you have come at last? But better late
than never."

"How could I help coming?" he gallantly exclaimed.

"I see. The coyotes stole your cutlets, and you were hungry," she
bantered, as she came alongside and whirled her horse around to ride
with him down the creek.

"How did you guess?" he asked.

"I know coyotes," she replied. "They're the worst--" She stopped
short, gazing at the bleeding flanks of his pony. "Oh, Mr. Ashton! how
could you? I did not think you so cruel!"

"Cruel?" he repeated, twisting about to see what she meant. "Ah, you
refer to the spurring. But I simply couldn't help it, you know. There
was a bandit taking pot shots at me as I passed the ridge back
there."

"A bandit--on Dry Mesa?" she incredulously exclaimed.

"Yes; he pegged at me eight or nine times."

The girl smiled. "You probably heard one of the punchers shooting at a
coyote."

"No," he insisted, flushing under her look. "The ruffian was shooting
at me. See here."

He put his hand to his left hip pocket, one side of which had been
torn out. From it he drew his brandy flask.

"That was done by the third or fourth shot," he explained. "Do you
wonder I was flat on my pony's neck and spurring as hard as I could?"

The girl took the flask from his outstretched hand and looked it over
with keen interest. In one side of the silver case was a small, neat
hole. Opposite it half of the other side had been burst out as if by
an explosion within. She took off the silver cap, shook out the
shattered glass of the inner flask, and looked again at the small
hole.

"A thirty-eight," she observed.

"Pardon me," he replied. "I fail to--Ah, yes; thirty-eight caliber,
you mean."

"It is I who must ask pardon," she said in frank apology. "Your rifle
is a thirty-two. I heard a number of shots, ending with the rattle of
an automatic. Thought you were after another deer."

He could afford to smile at the merry thrust and the flash of dimples
that accompanied it.

"At least it wasn't a calf this time," he replied. "Nor was it a doe.
But it may have been a buck."

"Indian?" she queried, with instant perception of his play on the
word.

"I didn't see any war plumes," he admitted.

"War plumes? Oh, that _is_ a joke!" she exclaimed. She chanced to look
down at the shattered flask, and her merriment vanished. "But this
isn't any joke. Didn't you see the man who was shooting at you?"

"Yes, after I jumped my pony down into the creek. Perhaps the bandit
thought he had tumbled us both. He stood up on top the ridge, until I
cut loose and made him run."

"He ran?"

Ashton's eyes sparkled at the remembrance, and his chest began to
expand. Then he met the girl's clear, direct gaze, and answered
modestly: "Well, you see, when I had got down behind the bank our
positions were reversed. He was the one in full view. It's curious,
though, Miss Knowles--shooting at that poor calf, under the impression
it was a deer, I simply couldn't hold my rifle steady, while--"

"No wonder, if it was your first deer," put in the girl. "We call it
buck fever."

"Yes, but wouldn't you have thought my first bandit--Why, I couldn't
have aimed at him more steadily if I had been made of cast iron."

"Guess he had made you fighting mad," she bantered; but under her
seeming levity he perceived a change in her manner towards him
immensely gratifying to his humbled self-esteem.

"At first I was just a trifle apprehensive--" He hesitated, and
suddenly burst out with a candid confession--"No, not a trifle!
Really, I was horribly frightened!"

This was more than the girl had hoped from him. She nodded and smiled
in open approval. "You had a good right to be frightened. I don't
blame you for spurring that way. Look. It wasn't only one shot that
came close. There's a neat hair brand on your hawss's hip that wasn't
there yesterday."

"Must have been the shot just before we took the bank," said Ashton,
twisting about to look at the streak cut by the bullet. "The first was
the only other one that didn't go higher."

"But what did the man look like?" questioned Miss Isobel. "I can't
imagine who--Can it be that your guide has a grudge against you on
account of his pay?"

"I wouldn't have thought it possible before yesterday, though he was a
surly fellow and inclined to be insolent."

"All such men are apt to be with tenderfeet," she remarked, permitting
herself a half twinkle of her sweet eyes. "But I should have thought
yours would have kept on going. Whatever you may have owed him, he had
no right to steal your outfit. He must be a real badman, if it's true
he is the party who did this shooting."

"I shouldn't be at all surprised," agreed Ashton. In her concern over
him she looked so charming that he would have agreed if she had told
him the moon was made of green cheese.

She shook her head thoughtfully, and went on: "I can't imagine even
one of our badmen trying to murder you that way. Their usual course
would be to come up to you, face to face, pick a quarrel, and beat you
to it on the draw. But whoever the cowardly scoundrel is, we'll turn
out the boys, and either run him down or out of the country."

"If it's my guide, he probably is running already."

"I hope so," replied the girl.

"You do! Don't you want him punished?" exclaimed Ashton.

"Of course, but you see I don't want Kid to--to cut another notch on
his Colt's."

"I must say, I cannot see how that--"

"You could if you realized how kind and good he has been to me all
these years. Do you know, when I first came West, I couldn't tell a
jackrabbit from a burro. Daddy had told me that each had big ears, and
I got them mixed. And actually I didn't know the off from the nigh
side of a hawss!"

"But we--er--have horses and riding-schools in the East," put in
Ashton.

She parried the indirect question without seeming to notice it. "You
proved that yesterday, coming down from High Mesa. I felt sure I would
have you pulling leather."

"Pulling leather?" he asked. "You see, I own to my tenderfootness."

"Grabbing your saddle to hold yourself on," she explained. Before he
could reply, she rose in her stirrups and pointed ahead with her
quirt. "Look, that's the top of the biggest haystack, up by the
feed-sheds. You'll see the buildings in half a minute."

Unheeded by Ashton, she had guided him off to the left, away from Dry
Fork, across the angle above its junction with Plum Creek. They were
now coming up over the divide between the two streams. Ashton failed
to locate the haystack until its two mates and the long, half-open
shelter-sheds came into view.

A moment later he was looking at the horse corral and the group of log
ranch houses. Below and beyond them the scattered groves of Plum Creek
stretched away up across the mesa--green bouquets on the slender
silver ribbon of the creek's midsummer rill.

"Well?" she asked. "What do you think of my home?"

"Your summer home," he suggested.

"No, my real home," she insisted. "Auntie couldn't be nicer or fonder
than she is; but her house is a residence, not a home, even to her.
Anyway, here, where I have Daddy and Kid--I do so hope you and Kid
will become friends."

"Since you wish it, I shall try to do my part. But it is a matter that
might take time, and--" he smiled ruefully and concluded with seeming
irrelevance--"I have no home."

She gazed at him with the look of tender motherly sympathy that he had
been too distraught to really feel the previous day. "Do not say that,
Mr. Ashton! Though a ranch house is hardly the kind of home to which
you are accustomed, you will find that we range folks retain the
old-fashioned Western ideas of hospitality."

"My dear Miss Knowles!" he exclaimed with ardent gallantry, "the mere
thought of being under the same sky with you--"

"Don't, please," she begged. "This _is_ the blue sky we are under, not
a stuccoed ceiling."

"Well, I really meant it," he protested, greatly dashed.

"Kid often says nice things to me. But he speaks with his hands," she
remarked.

"Deaf and dumb alphabet?" he queried wonderingly.

"Hardly," she answered, dimpling under his puzzled gaze. "Actions
speak louder than words, you know."

"Ah!" he murmured, and his look indicated that she had given him food
for thought.

They were now cantering down the long easy slope towards the ranch
buildings. The girl's quick eye perceived a horseman riding towards
the ranch from one of the groves up Plum Creek.

"There's Kid coming in," she remarked. "He went out early this morning
after a big wolf that had killed a calf. He reported last evening that
he found the carcass over near the head of Plum Creek. A wolf that
gets to killing calves this time of year is a pretty costly neighbor.
Daddy told Kid to go out and try to get him."

"I'm glad you didn't let him get _this_ calf-killer," observed
Ashton.

"Oh, as soon as we saw your tenderfoot riding togs--!" she rejoined.
"Seriously, though, you must not mind if the men poke a little fun at
you. Most of them are more farmhands than cowboys, but Kid will be apt
to lead off. I do so want you to be agreeable to Kid. He is almost a
member of the family, not a hired man."

"I shall try to be agreeable to him," replied Ashton, a trifle
stiffly.

The puncher had seen them probably before they saw him. He was riding
at a pace that brought him to the horse corral a few moments ahead of
them. When they came up he nodded carelessly in response to Ashton's
studiously polite greeting, "Good day, Mr. Gowan," and turned to
loosen the cinch of his saddle.

"You've been riding some," remarked the girl, looking at the puncher's
heaving, lathered horse.

"Jumped that wolf--ran him," replied Gowan, as he lifted off his
saddle and deftly tossed it up on the top rail of the corral.

"You're in luck," congratulated Miss Isobel. She explained to Ashton:
"The cattlemen in this county pay fifteen dollars for wolf scalps.
That's in addition to the state bounty."

Ashton sprang off to offer her his hand. But she was on the ground as
soon as he. Gowan stared at him between narrowed lids, and replied to
the girl somewhat shortly: "I didn't get him this time, Miss
Chuckie."

"You didn't? That's too bad! You don't often miss. I wish you had been
with me, to run down the scoundrel who tried to murder Mr. Ashton."

Gowan burst into the harsh, strained laughter of one who seldom gives
way to mirth. He checked himself abruptly and cast a hostile look at
Ashton. "By--James, Miss Chuckie, you don't mean to say you let a
tenderfoot string you?"

"How about this?" asked the girl. She held out the silver flask, which
she had not returned to Ashton.

Gowan gave it a casual glance, and answered almost jeeringly: "Easy
enough for him to set it up and plug it--if he didn't get too far
away."

"His rifle is a thirty-two. This was done by a thirty-eight," she
replied.

"Thirty-eight?" he repeated. "Let's see." He took the flask from her,
drew a rifle cartridge from his belt, and fitted the steel-jacketed
bullet into the clean, small hole. "You're right, Miss Chuckie. It
shore was a thirty-eight." He turned sharply on Ashton. "Where'd it
happen? Who was it?"

"Over on that dry stream," answered Ashton. "Unfortunately the fellow
was too far away for me to be able to describe him."

"But we think it may have been his guide," explained the girl.

"Guide?" muttered Gowan, staring intently at Ashton.

"Yes. You see, if he was mean enough to help steal Mr. Ashton's
outfit, he--"

"Shore, I savvy!" exclaimed the puncher. "I'll rope a couple of fresh
hawsses, and go out with Mr. Ashton after the two-legged wolf."

"That's like you, Kid! But you must wait at least until you've both
had dinner. Mr. Ashton, I'm sure, is half starved."

"Me, too, Miss Chuckie. But you know I'd rather eat a wolf or a
rustler or even a daring desperado than sinkers and beans, any day."

"You'll come in with us and see what Daddy has to say about it," the
girl insisted.

She started to loosen her saddle-cinch. Gowan handed back the silver
flask, and stripping off saddle and bridle from her horse, placed them
on the rail beside his own. Ashton waited, as if expecting a like
service. The puncher started off beside Miss Isobel without looking at
him. Ashton flushed hotly, and hastened to do his own unsaddling.



CHAPTER VII

THE CHANCE OF RECLAMATION


Beyond the bunkhouse, which was the nearest building to the corral,
stood the low but roomy log structure of the main ranch house. As
Ashton came around the front corner, close behind Gowan and the girl,
Knowles rose from his comfortable chair in the rustic porch, knocked
out the half burned contents of his pipe and extended a freckled,
corded hand to the stranger.

"Howdy, Mr. Ashton! Glad to see you!" he said with hearty hospitality.
"Hope you've come to ease up our lonesomeness by a month or two's
visit."

"Why, I--You're too kind, really!" replied Ashton, his voice quavering
and breaking at the unexpected cordiality of the welcome. "If you--I
shall take advantage of your generous offer. You see, I'm rather in a
box, owing to my--" He caught himself up, and tightened his slackening
lip. "But you'll pardon me if I ask you to let me do something in
return for your hospitality."

"We don't sell our hospitality on the range," brusquely replied the
cowman.

"Oh, no, no, I did not mean--I could not pay a penny. I'm utterly
destitute--a--a pauper!" A spasm of bitter despair contorted his
handsome face.

Knowles and the girl hastily looked away from him, that they might not
see him in his weakness. But he rallied and forced a rather unsteady
laugh at himself. "You see, I haven't quite got used to it yet. I've
always had money. I never really had to work. Now I must learn to earn
a living. It's very good of you, Mr. Knowles, but--there's that veal.
If only you'll let me work out what I owe you."

"You don't owe me a cent for the yearling," gruffly replied the
cowman. "Don't know what I could put you at, anyway."

"Might use him to shoo off the rattlers and jackrabbits from in front
the mowing machine," suggested Gowan.

"Mr. Ashton can ride," interposed the girl, with a friendliness of
tone that brought Gowan to a thin-lipped silence.

"That's something," said Knowles, gazing speculatively at the slim
aristocratic figure of the tenderfoot. "You're not built for pitching
hay, but like as not you have the makings of a puncher. Ever throw a
rope?"

"Never. I shall start practicing the art--at once."

"No, not until you and Kid have had dinner," gayly contradicted the
girl. "We've had ours. But Yuki always has something ready. Kid, if
you'll show Mr. Ashton where to wash, I'll tell Yuki."

She darted through the open doorway into the house. At a curt nod from
Gowan, Ashton followed him around to the far side of the house,
leaving Knowles in the act of hastily reloading his pipe. Under a
lean-to that covered a door in the side of the house was a barrel of
water and a bench with two basins. On a row of pegs above hung a
number of towels, all rumpled but none dirty.

Gowan pointed to a box of unused towels, and proceeded to lather and
wash himself. Ashton took a towel, and after rinsing out the second
washbasin, made as fastidious a toilet as the scant conveniences of
the place would permit. There were combs and a fairly good mirror
above the soap shelf. Gowan went in by the side door, without waiting
for his companion. Ashton presently followed him, having looked in
vain for a razor to rid himself of his two days' growth of beard.

The long table told him that he had entered the ranch mess-hall, or
rather, dining-room. Though the table was covered with oilcloth and
the rough-hewn logs of the outer walls were lime-plastered only in the
chinks, the seats were chairs instead of benches, and between the gay
Mexican _serape_ drapes of the clean windows hung several well-done
water color landscapes, appropriately framed in unbarked pine. On the
oiled deal floor were scattered half a dozen Navajo rugs.

Gowan had taken a seat at one end of the table. As Ashton sat down at
the neatly laid place opposite him, a silent, smiling, deft-handed Jap
came in from the kitchen with a heaping trayful of dishes. For the
most part, the food was ordinary ranch fare, but cooked with the skill
of a _chef_. The exceptions were the fresh milk and delicious unsalted
butter. On most cattle ranches, the milk comes from "tin cows" and the
butter from oleomargarine tubs.

The two diners were well along in their meal, eating as earnestly and
as taciturnly as the Jap served, when Miss Isobel came in with her
father. The girl had dressed for the afternoon in a gown of the latest
style, whose quiet color and simple lines harmonized perfectly with
her surroundings. She smiled impartially at puncher, tenderfoot, and
Jap.

"Thank you, Yuki. I see you did not keep our hungry hunters
waiting.--Mr. Ashton, I have told Daddy about that shooting."

"It's a mighty strange happening. You might tell us the full
particulars," said Knowles.

Ashton at once gave a fairly accurate account of the affair. He could
hardly exaggerate the peril he had incurred, and the touch of
exultance with which he described his defeat of the murderer was quite
pardonable in a tenderfoot.

"Strange--mighty strange. Can't understand it," commented the cowman
when Ashton had finished his account.

"It shore is, Mr. Knowles," added Gowan. "The only thirty-eight on the
ranch is mine. That seems to clear our people."

"Of course! It could not possibly be any of our people!" exclaimed the
girl.

"Mr. Ashton thinks it might have been his guide," went on Gowan.

"His guide? What caliber was his rifle?" shrewdly queried the cowman.

"Why, I--really I cannot remember," answered Ashton. "I know it was of
a larger bore than mine, but that is all."

"Um-m," considered Knowles. "Looks rather like he's the man. Can't
think of anyone else. Trouble is, if he was laying in wait for you,
his horse would be fresh. Must have covered a right smart bit of
territory by now."

"I'll go out and take a look at his tracks," said Gowan, rising with a
readiness that brought a nod of approval from his employer.

"You'll be careful, Kid," cautioned the girl, with a shade of concern
in her tone.

"He'll keep his eye open, Chuckie," reassured her father. "It's the
other fellow wants to be careful, if he hasn't already vamoosed. Hey,
Kid?"

"I'll get him, if I get the chance," laconically replied Gowan,
looking from the girl to Ashton with the characteristic straightening
of his lips that marked the tensing of his emotions.

As he left the room Miss Isobel smiled and nodded to Ashton. "You see
how friendly he is, in spite of his cold manner to strangers. I
thought he had taken a dislike to you, yet you saw how readily he
offered to go out after your assailant."

"More likely it's because he thinks it would discredit us to let such
a scoundrel get away," differed her father. "However, he'll leave you
alone, Mr. Ashton, if you stay with us as a guest, and will only haze
you a bit, if you insist upon joining our force."

"You mean, working for you? I must insist on that," said Ashton, with
an eager look at the girl. "If only I can do well enough to be
employed right along!"

The cowman grunted, and winked solemnly at his daughter. "Yes, I can
understand your feeling that way. How about the winter, though? You
mayn't like it over here so well then."

Ashton flushed and laughed at the older man's shrewdness; hesitated,
and confessed candidly: "No, I should prefer Denver in winter."

Miss Isobel blushed in adorable payment of his compliment, but thrust
back at him: "We bar cowboys in the Sacred Thirty-six."

He winced. Her stroke had pierced into his raw wound.

"Oh!--oh!" she breathlessly exclaimed. "I didn't mean to--Oh, I'm so
sorry!"

He dashed the tears from his eyes. "No, you--don't apologize! It's
only that I'm--Please don't fancy I'm a baby! You see, when a fellow
has always lived high--on top, you know--and then to have everything
go out from under him without warning!"

"Keep a stiff upper lip, son," advised Knowles. "You'll pull through
all right. It isn't everyone in your fix that would be asking for
work."

Ashton laughed a trifle unsteadily. "It's very kind of you to say
that, Mr. Knowles. I--I wish a steady position, winter as well as
summer."

"How about Denver?" asked Knowles.

"That can wait," replied Ashton. He met the girl's smile of approval,
and rallied fully. "Yes, that can wait--and so can I."

Again the girl blushed, but she found a bantering rejoinder: "With you
and Kid and Daddy all waiting for me to come home, I suppose I'll have
to cut the season short."

"The winters here are like those you read about up at the North
Pole," the cowman informed Ashton. "But we get our sunshine back along
in the spring."

"Oh, Daddy! you're a poet!" cried his daughter, flinging her arm
around his sunburnt neck.

"Wish I were one!" enviously sighed Ashton. The cowman gave him a look
that brought him to his feet. "Mr. Knowles," he hastened to ask, "if
you'll kindly tell me what my work is to be this afternoon."

The older man's frown relaxed. "Did you come out here from Stockchute?"

"Yes."

"Think you could find your way back?"

"Why, yes; though we wandered all around--But surely, Mr. Knowles,
you'll not require me--"

"I want a man to ride over with some letters and fetch the mail. I'll
need Gowan for work you can't do. Chuckie was to have gone; but I
can't let her now, until we're more sure about that man who shot at
you."

"I see."

"Well, have you got the nerve, in case the man is loose over that
way?"

Ashton's eyes flashed. "I'll go! Perhaps I'll get another crack at the
scoundrel."

"Keep cool. It's ninety-nine chances in the hundred he's on the run
and'll keep going all week."

"Shall I start now? As we came by a very roundabout way--We went first
in the opposite direction, and then skirted High Mesa down from the
mountains. So, you see, I may have a little difficulty--"

"No you won't. There's our wagon trail. Even if you got off that, all
you'd have to do would be to keep headed for Split Peak. That's right
in line with Stockchute. But you'll not start till morning. I haven't
got all my letters written. That'll give you all day to go and come.
It's only twenty-five miles over there. Chuckie, you show this new
puncher of ours over the place, while I write those letters."

"I'll start teaching him how to throw a rope," volunteered the girl.

She led the way out through a daintily furnished front room, in which
Ashton observed an upright piano and other articles of culture that he
would never have expected to come upon in this remote section. In
passing, the girl picked up a wide-brimmed lacy hat.

Once outside, she first took Ashton for a walk up Plum Creek to where
half a dozen men were at work with a mowing machine and horse rakes
making hay of the rich bunch-grass.

"Daddy feeds all he can in winter," she explained. "The spring when I
first came back from Denver I cried so over the starving cattle that
he promised to always afterwards cut and stack all the hay he could.
And he has found it pays to feed well. We would put a lot of land into
oats, but, as you see, there's not enough water in the creek."

"That's where an irrigation system would come in," remarked Ashton.

"Oh, I hope you don't think it possible to water our mesa!" she cried.
"I told you how it would break up our range."

"I assure you, I don't think at all," he replied. "I'm not a
reclamation engineer--never specialized on hydraulics."

She flashed an odd look at him. "You never? But Mr. Blake--that
wonderful engineer of the Zariba Dam--he would know, wouldn't he?"

"I--suppose he would--that is, if he--" Ashton hesitated, and
exclaimed, "But that's just it!"

"What?" she asked.

"Why, to--to have him come here. He's the luckiest for blundering on
ways to do things," muttered Ashton. He added with growing bitterness:
"Yes, if there's any way at all to do it, you'd have him flooding your
whole range--deluging it. He's got all those millions to back him."

"You do not like him," said the girl. She looked off towards High
Mesa, her face glowing with suppressed excitement. "No doubt you are
right--as to his ability. But--don't you see?--if it can be done, it
is bound to be done sooner or later. All the time Daddy and I--and
Kid, too--are living under this constant dread that it may be
possible. But if such an engineer as--as Mr. Blake came and looked
over the situation and told us we needn't fear--don't you see how--?"

"You don't mean that you--?" Ashton, in turn, left his question
unfinished and averted his face.

"Yes," she answered. "I'm sure it will be best to put an end to this
uncertainty. So I believe I shall send for--for Mr. Blake."

"But--why for--for him--in particular?" he stammered.

"I am sorry you dislike him," she said, regaining her composure when
she saw that he too was agitated.

He did not reply. She tactfully changed the subject. By the time they
had circled around, back to the half open feed-sheds, he was gayly
chatting with her on music and the drama. When they came down to the
horse corral she proceeded to lecture him on the duties of a cowboy
and showed him how to hold and throw a rope. Under her skillful
tuition, he at last learned the knack of casting an open noose.

Evening was near when they returned to the house. As before, they
caught Knowles in the front porch contentedly puffing at his pipe. He
dropped it down out of sight. The girl shook her finger at him, nodded
to Ashton, and went indoors. Immediately the cowman put his pipe back
into his mouth and drew another from his pocket, together with an
unopened sack of tobacco.

"Smoke?" he asked.

Ashton's eyes gleamed. In the girl's presence he had been able to
restrain the fierce craving that had tortured him since dinner. Now it
so overmastered him that he almost snatched the pipe and tobacco out
of the cowman's hand. The latter gravely shook his head.

"Got it that bad, have you?" he deplored.

Ashton could not answer until his pipe was well under way.

"I'm--I'm breaking off," he replied. "Haven't had a cigarette all
day--nor anything else. A-ah!"

"Glad you like it," said Knowles. "A pipe is all right with this kind
of tobacco. You can't inhale it like you can cigarettes, unless you
want to strangle."

"I shall break off entirely as soon as I can," asserted Ashton.

"Well," considered Knowles, "I'm not saying you can't or won't. It's
mighty curious what a young fellow can do to please a pretty girl.
Just the same, I'd say from the color of Kid's fingers that he hasn't
forgotten how to roll a fat Mexican _cigaretto_.--Hello! 'Talk of the
devil--' Here he comes now."

Gowan came around the corner of the house, his spurs jingling. His
eyes were as cold and his face as emotionless as usual.

"Well?" asked Knowles. "Have a seat."

"Didn't get him," reported Gowan, dropping into a chair. "Near as I
could make out, he cut straight across for the railroad, on the
jump."

"Then it must have been that guide!" exclaimed Ashton.

"Looks that way," added Knowles. "Glad of it. We won't see him again,
unless you want to notify the sheriff, when you ride over tomorrow."

"No, oh, no. I am satisfied to be rid of him."

"If he don't come back," remarked Gowan.

"He won't," predicted Knowles.

"Well, not for a time maybe," agreed Gowan.



CHAPTER VIII

A MAN'S SIZE HORSE


At dusk the sonorous boom of a Japanese gong gave warning of the
approach of the supper hour. A few minutes later a second booming
summoned all in to the meal. Miss Isobel sat at one end of the table;
her father at the other. Along the sides were the employés, Ashton and
Gowan at the corners nearest the girl. A large coal oil lamp with an
artistic shade cast a pink light on the clean white oilcloth of the
table and the simple tasteful table service.

Yuki, the silent Jap, served all with strict impartiality, starting
with the mistress of the house and going around the table in regular
succession, either one way or the other. The six rough-appearing
haymakers used their knives with a freedom to which Ashton was
unaccustomed, but their faces were clean, their behavior quiet, and
their occasional remarks by no means inapt.

After the meal they wished Miss Knowles a pleasant "Good-night," and
left for the bunkhouse. But Ashton and Gowan, at the smiling
invitation of the girl, followed her into the front room. Knowles
came in a few minutes later and, with scarcely a glance at the young
people, settled down beside a tableful of periodicals and magazines to
study the latest Government report on the reclamation service.

Ashton had entered the "parlor" under the impression that here he
would have Gowan at a disadvantage. To his surprise, the puncher
proved to be quite at ease; his manners were correct and his
conversation by no means provincial. A moment's reflection showed
Ashton that this could not well be otherwise, in view of the young
fellow's intimacy with Miss Chuckie Isobel.

Another surprise was the discovery that Gowan had a remarkably good
ear for music and knew even more than the girl about the masters and
their works. There was a player attachment to the piano, and the girl
and Gowan had a contest, playing the same selections in turn, to see
which could get the most expression by means of the mechanical
apparatus. If anything, the girl came out second best. At least she
said so; but Ashton would not admit it.

Between times the three chatted on a thousand and one topics, the girl
always ready to bubble over with animation and merriment. She bestowed
her dimpled smiles on both her admirers with strict impartiality and
as impartially stimulated each to his best with her tact and gay
wit.

At nine o'clock sharp Knowles closed his report and rose from his
comfortable seat.

"Time to turn in, boys. Coal oil costs more than sunlight," he
announced, in the flat tone of a standing joke. "We'll take a jog down
creek to the Bar-Lazy-J ranch, first thing tomorrow, Kid.--Ashton,
you'd better start off in the cool, before sunup. Here's my bunch of
letters, case I might forget them."

He handed over half a dozen thinly padded envelopes. Gowan was already
at the door, hat in hand.

"Good night, Mr. Knowles. Good night, Miss Chuckie. Pleasant dreams!"
he said.

"Same to you, Kid!" replied the girl.

"May I give and receive the same?" asked Ashton.

"Of course," she answered. "But wait a moment, please. I've some
letters to go, myself, if you'll kindly take them with Daddy's."

As she darted into a side room, Knowles stepped out after Gowan. When
the girl returned, Ashton took the letters that she held out to him
and deliberately started to tie them in a packet with those of her
father. His sole purpose was to prolong his stay to the last possible
moment. But inadvertently his eye caught the name "Blake" on one of
the envelopes. His smile vanished; his jaw dropped.

"Why, Mr. Ashton, what is the matter?" said the girl.

"I--I beg your pardon," he replied. "I did not realize that--But it's
too absurd--it can't be! You did not mean what you said this
afternoon. It can't be you're writing to that man to come here."

"I am," she replied.

"But you can't--you must not. He's the very devil for doing impossible
things. He'll be sure to turn loose a flood on you--drown you
out--destroy your range!"

"If it can be done, the sooner we know it the better," she argued.
"Daddy says little, but it is becoming a monomania with him--the
dread. I wish to put an end to his suspense. Besides, if--if this Mr.
Blake is as remarkable as you and the reports say he is, it will be
interesting to meet him. My only fear is that so great an engineer
will not think it worth while to come to this out-of-the-way
section."

"The big four-flusher!" muttered Ashton.

"How you must dislike him! It makes me all the more curious to see
him."

"Does your father know about this letter?" queried Ashton.

"You forget yourself, sir," she said.

Meeting her level gaze, he flushed crimson with mortification. He
stood biting his lip, unable to speak.

She went on coldly: "I do not ask you to tell me the cause of your
hatred for Mr. Blake. I assume that you are a gentleman and will not
destroy my letter. But even if you should do so, it would mean only a
short delay. I shall write him again if I receive no reply to this."

Ashton's flush deepened. "I did not think you could be so hard. But--I
presume I deserved it."

"Yes, you did," she agreed, with no lessening of her coldness.

"I see you will not accept an apology, Miss Knowles. However, I give
you my word that I will deliver your letter to the postmaster at
Stockchute."

He started out, very stiff and erect. As he passed through the doorway
she suddenly relented and called after him: "Good night, Mr. Ashton!
Pleasant dreams!"

He wheeled and would have stepped back to reply had not Knowles spoken
to him from the darkness at the end of the porch: "This way, Ashton.
Kid is waiting to show you to the bunkhouse. You'll find a clean bunk
and new blankets. I've also issued you corduroy pants and a pair of
leather chaps from the commissary. Those city riding togs aren't
hardly the thing on the range. There's a spare saddle, if you want to
change off from yours."

"Thank you for the other things; but I prefer my own saddle," replied
Ashton.

He now perceived the dim form of Gowan starting off in the starlight,
and followed him to the bunkhouse. The other men were already in
their beds, fast asleep and half of them snoring. Gowan silently lit a
lantern and showed the tenderfoot to an unoccupied bunk in the far
corner of the rough but clean building. After a curt request for
Ashton to blow out the lantern when through with the light, he
withdrew, to tumble into a bunk near the door.

Ashton removed twice as many garments as had the puncher, and slipped
in between his fresh new blankets, after several minutes spent in
finding out how to extinguish the lantern. For some time he lay
listening. He had often read of the practical jokes that cowboys are
supposed always to play on tenderfeet. But the steady concert of the
snoring sleepers was unbroken by any horseplay. Presently he, too,
fell asleep.

He was wakened by a general stir in the bunkhouse. Day had not yet
come, but by the light of a lantern near the door he could see his
fellow employés passing out. He dressed as hastily as he could in his
gloomy corner, putting on his new trousers and the stiff leather
chapareras in place of his breeches and leggings. Gowan came in,
glanced at him with a trace of surprise, and went out with the
lantern.

Ashton followed to the house and around into the side porch. The other
men were making their morning toilets by lantern light, each drying
face and hands on his own towel. Ashton and Gowan waited their turn
at the basins, and together went into the lamplit dining-room, where
the Jap cook was serving bacon, coffee, and hot bread. Ashton lingered
over his meal, hoping to see Miss Isobel. But neither she nor her
father appeared.

Gowan had gone out with the other men. Presently he came back to the
side door and remarked in almost a friendly tone: "Your hawss is ready
whenever you are, Ashton."

"Thanks," said Ashton, rising. "The poor old brute must be rather
stiff after the spurring I gave him yesterday."

Gowan did not reply. He had gone out again. Somewhat nettled, Ashton
hastened after him. Dawn had come. The gray light in the east was
brightening to an exquisite pink. The clear twilight showed the
puncher waiting at the front of the house beside a saddled horse. A
glance showed Ashton that the saddle and bridle were his own, but that
the horse was a big, rawboned beast.

"That's not my pony," he said.

"This here Rocket hawss ain't _any_ pony," agreed Gowan. "He's a man's
size hawss. Ain't afraid you'll drop too far when you fall off, are
you?"

"You're trying to get me on a bucking bronco!" said Ashton,
suspiciously eying the bony, wild-eyed brute.

"He's no outlaw," reassured Gowan. "Most all our hawsses are liable
to prance some when they've et too many rattlers. But Miss Chuckie
said you can ride."

"I can," said Ashton, tightening the thong of his sombrero down across
the back of his head and buttoning his coat.

"Roped this Rocket hawss for you because Mr. Knowles wants his mail by
sundown," remarked Gowan. "He shore can travel some when he feels like
it. Don't know as you'll need your spurs. Here's a five-spot Mr.
Knowles said to hand you by way of advance. Thought you might want to
refresh yourself over at Stockchute. Wouldn't rather have another
saddle and bridle, would you?"

"Kindly thank Mr. Knowles for me," said Ashton, pocketing the five
dollar bill. "No--the horse is hard-mouthed, but I prefer my own
saddle and bridle."

He drew his rifle from its sheath, wiped the dew from the butt, and
tested the mechanism. The horse cocked his ears, but stood motionless
while the rifle was taken out and replaced. Ashton picked up the reins
from the ground and threw them over the horse's head. The beast did
not swing around, but his ewe neck straightened and his entire body
stiffened to a peculiar rigidity.

Ashton tested the tightness of his saddle girth, and paused to gaze at
the closed front door of the house. Aside from his saddle and
burlesque sombrero, he looked every inch a puncher, both in dress and
in bearing. But Miss Isobel missed the effect of his new _ensemble_.
She missed also the interesting spectacle of his mounting.

If he had never ridden a cow pony he would have been thrown and
dragged the instant he put his foot in the narrow metal stirrup. The
horse was watching him alertly, every muscle tense. Ashton smiled
confidently, spoke to the beast in a quiet tone, and pulled on the off
rein. The horse bent his head to the pull, for the moment off his
guard. In a twinkling Ashton had his foot in the stirrup and was up in
the saddle. His toe slipped into the other stirrup as the horse jumped
sideways.

The leap was tremendous, but it failed to unseat Ashton. It was
instantly followed by other wild jumps--whirling forward and sidelong
leaps, interspersed with frantic plunging and rearing. Gowan looked
on, agape with amazement. The tenderfoot stuck fast on his flat little
saddle and only once pulled leather. Rocket was not a star bucker, but
he had thrown more than one half-baked cowboy.

Finding that he could not unseat his rider, the beast suddenly gave
over his plunging, and bolted at furious speed down the smooth slope
towards Plum Creek. Before they had gone half a furlong Ashton
realized that he was on a blooded horse of unusual speed and a
runaway. He could not hope to pull down so tough-mouthed a beast with
his ordinary curb. The best he could do was to throw all his weight on
the right rein. Unable altogether to resist the steady tug at his
head, the racing horse gradually swerved until he was headed across
the mesa towards the jagged, snow-streaked twin crests of Split Peak.

Horse and rider were still in the curve of their swift flight when
Isobel Knowles came out into the porch, yawning behind her plump,
sunbrowned hand. A glance at Gowan cut the yawn short. She looked
alertly afield and at once caught sight of the runaway.

"Kid!--O-oh!" she cried. "Mr. Ashton!--on Rocket!"

Gowan spun about to her with a guilty start, but answered almost
glibly: "You said he could ride, Miss Chuckie."

"He'll--he'll be killed!--Daddy!"

Knowles stepped out through the doorway, cocking his big blue-barreled
Colt's. Gowan hastily pointed towards the runaway. Knowles looked, and
dropped the revolver to his side. "What's up?" he growled.

"Kid--he--he put Mr. Ashton on Rocket!" breathlessly answered his
daughter.

"Sorry to contradict you, Miss Chuckie," said Gowan. "He put himself
on."

"He's on yet," dryly commented the cowman. "May be something to that
boy, after all."

"But, Daddy!--"

"Now, just stop fussing yourself, honey. He and Rocket are going
smooth as axlegrease and bee-lining for Stockchute. How did the hawss
start off?--skittish?"

"Enough to make the tenderfoot pull leather," said Gowan.

"If he stuck at all, with that fool saddle--!" rejoined Knowles.
"Don't you worry, honey. He sure can fork a hawss--that tenderfoot."

"Oh, yes," the girl sighed with relief. "If Rocket started off
bucking, and he kept his seat, of course it's all right. See him take
that gully!"

"You sure gave me a start, honey, calling out that way.--Well, Kid,
it's about time we were off. I'll get my hat."

Gowan stepped nearer the girl as her father went inside. "I'll leave
it to the tenderfoot to tell you, Miss Chuckie. He'll have to own up I
gave him fair warning. Told him he wouldn't need his spurs, and asked
if he'd have another bit and saddle; but it wasn't any use. He's the
kind that won't take advice."

"I know you meant it as a joke, Kid. You did not realize the danger of
his narrow stirrups. Had he been caught in mounting or had he been
thrown, he would almost certainly have been dragged. And for you to
give him our one ugly hawss!"

"You said he could ride," the puncher defended himself.

"I'll forgive you for your joke--if he comes back safe," she
qualified, without turning her gaze from the now distant horse and
rider.

Gowan started for the corral, the slight waddle of his bowlegged gait
rather more pronounced than usual. When Knowles came out with his hat,
the runaway was well up on the divide towards Dry Fork. Rocket was
justifying his name.

In a few seconds the flying horse and rider had disappeared down the
far slope. The girl followed her father and Gowan to the corral, and
after they had ridden off, she roped and saddled one of the three
horses in the corral. She mounted and was off on the jump, riding
straight for the nearest point on the summit of the divide.

As, presently, she came up towards the top of the rise, she gazed
anxiously ahead towards Dry Fork. Before she could see over the bend
down to the creek channel, she caught sight of a cloud of dust far out
on the mesa beyond the stream. She smiled with relief and wheeled
about to return. The tenderfoot had safely crossed the stream bed. He
would have Rocket well in hand before they came to rough country.



CHAPTER IX

THE SNAKE


Early in the afternoon, having nothing else to do, Isobel again
saddled up and started off towards Dry Fork. Her intention was to ride
out on the road to Stockchute and meet Ashton, if he was not too
late.

As she rode up one side of the divide, a hat appeared over the bend of
the other side. She could not mistake the high peak of that comic
opera sombrero. Ashton was almost back to the ranch. Her first thought
was that he had gone part way, and given up the trip. The big sombrero
bobbed up and down in an odd manner. She guessed the cause even before
Ashton's head and body appeared, rising and falling rhythmically. She
stared as Rocket swept up into view, covering the ground with a
long-strided trot.

Ashton waved to her. She waved back. A few moments later they were
close together. As she spun her pony around, he pulled in his horse to
a walk, patting the beast's neck and speaking to him caressingly.

"Back already?" she asked. "Surely, you've not been to Stockchute--Yes,
you have!" Her experienced eye was taking in every indication of his
horse's condition. "He's been traveling; but you've handled him well."

"He's grand!" said Ashton. "Been putting him through his paces. I
suppose he is your father's best mount."

"Daddy and Kid ride him when they're in a hurry or there's no other
horse handy."

"You can't mean--? Then perhaps I can have him again occasionally."

"You like him, really?"

"All he needs is a little management," replied Ashton, again patting
the horse's lean neck.

"If you wish to take him in hand, I'll assign him to you. No one else
wants him."

"As your rural deliveryman's mount--" began Ashton. He stopped to show
the bulging bag slung under his arm. "Here's the mail. Do you wish
your letters now?"

"Thank you, no."

"Here is this, however," he said, handing her a folded slip of paper.

She opened it and looked at the writing inside. It was a receipt from
the postmaster at Stockchute to Lafayette Ashton for certain letters
delivered for mailing. The address of the letter to Thomas Blake was
given in full. The girl colored, bit her lip, and murmured
contritely: "You have turned the tables on me. I deserved it!"

"Please don't take it that way!" he begged. "My purpose was merely to
assure you the letter was mailed. After all, I am a stranger, Miss
Knowles."

"No, not now," she differed.

"It's very kind of you to say it! Yet it's just as well for me to
start off with no doubts in your mind, in view of the fact that in two
or three weeks--"

"Yes?" she asked, as he hesitated.

"I--Your father will hardly keep me more than two weeks, unless--unless
I make good," he answered.

"I guess you needn't worry about that," she replied, somewhat
ambiguously.

He shrugged. "It is very good of you to say it, Miss Knowles. I know I
shall fail. Can you expect anyone who has always lived within touch of
millions, one who has spent more in four years at college than all
this range is worth--He cut my allowance repeatedly, until it was only
a beggarly twenty-five thousand."

"Twenty-five thousand dollars!" exclaimed Isobel. "You had all that
to--to throw away in a single year?"

"He cut me down to it the last year--a mere bagatelle to what I had
all the time I was at college and Tech.," replied Ashton, his eyes
sparkling at the recollection. "He wished me to get in thick with the
New Yorkers, the sons of the Wall Street leaders. He gave me leave to
draw on him without limit. I did what he wished me to do,--I got in
with the most exclusive set. Ah-h!--the way I made the dollars fly!
Before I graduated I was the acknowledged leader. What's more, I led
my class, too--when I chose."

"When you chose!" she echoed. "And now what are you going to do?"

The question punctured his reminiscent elation. He sagged down in his
saddle. "I don't know," he answered despondently. "_Mon Dieu!_ To come
down to this--a common laborer for wages--after _that_! When I think
of it--when I think of it!"

"You are not to think of it again!" she commanded with kindly
severity. "What you are to remember all the time is that you are now a
man and honestly earning your own living, and no longer a--a leech
battening on the sustenance produced by others."

He winced. "Was that my fault?"

"No, it was your father's. I marvel that he did not utterly ruin
you."

"He has! In his last will he cuts me off with only a dollar."

"So that was it?--And you think that ruined you? I say it saved you!"
she went on with the same kindly severity. "You were a parasite. Now
the chance is yours to prove that you have the makings of a man. You
have started to prove it. You shall not stop proving it. You are not
going to be a quitter."

"No!" he declared, straightening under her bright gaze. "I will not
quit. I will try my best to make good as long as the chance is given
me."

"Now you're talking!" she commended him breezily.

"How could I do otherwise when you asked me?" he replied with a grave
sincerity far more complimentary than mere gallantry.

She colored with pleasure and began to tell him of the cattle and
their ways.

When they reached the corral she complimented him in turn by allowing
him to offsaddle her horse. They walked on down to the house and
seated themselves in the porch. As he opened the bag of mail for her
she noticed that her hand was empty and turned to look back towards
the corral.

"Your receipt from the postmaster," she remarked; "I must have dropped
it."

He sprang up. "If you wish to keep it, I shall go back and find it for
you."

"No, oh, no; unless you want it yourself," she replied.

"Not I. The matter is closed, thanks to your kindness," he declared,
again seating himself.

He was right, in so far as they were concerned. Yet the matter was
not closed. That evening, when Knowles and Gowan returned from their
day of range riding, the younger man noticed a crumpled slip of paper
lying against the foot of the corral post below the place where he
tossed up his saddle. He picked it up and looked to see if it was of
any value. An oath burst from his thin-drawn lips.

"Shut up, Kid!" remonstrated Knowles. "I'm no more squeamish than
most, but you know I don't like any cussing so near Chuckie."

"Look at this!" cried Gowan--"Enough to make anybody cuss!"

He thrust out the slip of paper close before his employer's eyes.
Knowles took it and read it through with deliberate care.

"Well?" he said. "It's a receipt from the postmaster to Ashton for
those letters I sent over by him. What of it?"

"_Your_ letters?" asked Gowan, taken aback. "Did you write that one
what is most particularly mentioned, the one to that big engineer
Blake?"

"No. What would I be doing, writing to him or any engineer? They're
just the people I don't want to have any doings with."

"Then if you didn't write him, who did?" questioned Gowan, his mouth
again tightening.

"Why, I reckon you'll have to do your own guessing, Kid--unless it
might be Ashton did it."

"That's one leg roped," said Gowan. "Can you guess why he'd be writing
to that engineer?"

"Lord, no. He may have the luck to know him. Mr. Blake is a mighty big
man, judging from all accounts; but money stands for a lot in the
cities and back East, and Ashton's father is one of the richest men in
Chicago. I looked it up in the magazine that told about his helping to
back the Zariba Dam project."

"That's another leg noosed--on the second throw," said Gowan. "Another
try or two, and we'll have the skunk ready for hog-tying."

"How's that?" exclaimed the cowman. "You've got something up your
sleeve."

"No, it's that striped skunk that's doing the crooked playing,"
snapped Gowan. "Can't you savvy his game? It's all a frame-up--his
sending off his guide and outfit, so's to let on to you he'd been
busted up and kicked out by his dad. You take him in to keep his
pretty carcass from the coyotes--which has saved them from being
poisoned."

"Now, look here, Kid, only trouble about you you're too apt to go off
at half-cock. This young fellow may not be--"

"He shore is a snake, Mr. Knowles, and this receipt proves it on him,"
broke in the puncher. "Ain't you taken him into your employ?--ain't
you treated him like he was a man?"

"Well, 'tisn't every busted millionaire would have asked for work, and
he seems to mean it."

"Just a bluff! You don't savvy the game yet. Busted millionaire--_bah!_
He's the coyote of that bunch of reclamation wolves. He comes out here
to sneak around and get the lay of things. We happen to catch him
rustling. To save his cussed carcass, he lets out about who his dad
is. Course he couldn't know we'd got all the reports on that Zariba
Dam and who backed the engineer, nor that we'd know all about Blake."

"Well?" asked Knowles, frowning.

"So he works us for suckers,--worms in here with us where he can learn
all about you and your holdings; ropes a job with you, and gets off
his report to that engineer Blake, first time he rides over to town."

"Is that all your argument?" asked Knowles.

"Ain't it enough?" rejoined Gowan. "Ain't he and that bunch all in
cahoots together? Ain't this sneaking cuss's dad either the partner or
the boss of Blake? Ain't Blake engaged in reclamation projects? You
shore see all that. What follows?--It's all a frame-up, I tell you.
Young Ashton comes out here as a sort of forerider for his concern;
finds out what his people want to know, and now he's sent in his
report to Blake. Next thing happens, Blake'll be turning up with a
surveying outfit."

Knowles scratched his head. "Hum-m-m--You sure put up a mighty stiff
argument, Kid. I'm not so sure, though.... Um-m-m--Strikes me some of
your knots might be tighter. First place, there wasn't any play-acting
about the way the boy went plumb to pieces there at the waterhole.
Next place, a man like his father, that's piled up a mint of money,
isn't going to send out his son as forerider in a hostile country.
Lastly, I've read a lot more about that engineer Blake than you have,
and I've sized him up as a man who won't do anything that isn't square
and open."

"Maybe he ain't in on the dirty side of the deal," admitted Gowan.
"How about this letter, though?"

"Just a friendly writing, like as not," answered the cowman. "No,
Kid--only trouble with you is you're too anxious over the interests of
Dry Mesa range. I appreciate it, boy, and so does Chuckie. But that's
no reason for you to take every newcomer for a wolf 'til he proves
he's only a dog."

"You won't do anything?" asked the puncher.

"What d'you want me to do?"

"Fire him--run him off Dry Mesa," snapped Gowan.

"Sorry I can't oblige you, Kid," replied Knowles. "You mean well, but
you'll have to make a better showing before I'll turn adrift any man
that seems to be trying to make good."

Gowan looked down. After a brief pause he replied with unexpected
submissiveness: "All right, Mr. Knowles. You're the boss. Reckon you
know best. I don't savvy these city folks."

"Glad you admit it," said Knowles. "You're all wrong in sizing him up
that way. I've a notion he's got a lot of good in him, spite of his
city rearing. I wouldn't object, though, if you wanted to test him out
with a little harmless hazing, long as you didn't go too far."

"No," declined Gowan. "I've got my own notion of what he is. There's
just one way to deal with skunks, and that is, don't fool with them."

The cowman accepted this as conclusive. But when, a little later,
Ashton met Gowan at the supper table he was rendered uneasy by the
cold glint in the puncher's gray eyes. As nothing was said about the
postmaster's receipt, he could conjecture no reason for the look other
than that Gowan was planning to render him ridiculous with some cowboy
trick.

Isobel had assured him with utmost confidence that the testing of his
horsemanship by means of Rocket had been intended only as a practical
joke, and that Gowan would never have permitted him to mount the horse
had he considered it at all dangerous. Yet the fellow might next
undertake jokes containing no element of physical peril and
consequently all the more humiliating unless evaded.

In apprehension of this, the tenderfoot lay awake most of that night
and fully half of the next. His watch was fruitless. Each night Gowan
and the other men left him strictly alone in his far dark corner of
the bunkhouse. In the daytime the puncher was studiously polite to him
during the few hours that he was not off on the range.

The third evening, after supper, Gowan handed Isobel the horny,
half-flattened rattles of an unusually large rattlesnake.

"What is it? Do you wish me to guess his length?" she asked, evidently
surprised that he should fetch her so commonplace an object. "I make
it four feet."

"You're three inches short," he replied.

"Well, what about it?" she inquired.

"Nothing--only I just happened to get him up near the bunkhouse, Miss
Chuckie. Thought I'd tell you, in case he has a mate around."

"We must all look sharp. You, too, Mr. Ashton. They are more apt to
strike without warning, this time of year."

"I know," remarked Ashton. "It's before they cast their old skin, and
it makes them blind."

"Too early for that," corrected Knowles. "I figure it's the long spell
of the summer's heat. Gets on their nerves, same as with us."

"They shore are mighty like some humans," observed Gowan. "Look at the
way they like to snuggle up in your blankets on a cool night.
Remember how I used to carry a hair rope on spring round-up?"

"I remember that they used to crawl into the bunkhouse before the
floor was laid," said Isobel. She smiled at Ashton. "That was the Dry
Mesa reptilian age. I first learned to handle a 'gun' shooting at
rattlers. There were so many we had to make it a rule to kill everyone
we could. But there hasn't been one killed so near the house for
years."

"They often go in pairs. This one, though, may have been a lone
stray," added Gowan. He looked at his employer. "Talking about strays,
guess I'd best go out in the morning and head back that Bar-Lazy-J
bunch. I can take an iron along and brand those two calves, same
trip."

Knowles nodded and returned to his Government report. The two young
men and Isobel began an evening's entertainment at the piano. Ashton
enjoyed himself immensely. Though so frank and unconstrained in
manner, the girl was as truly refined as the most fastidiously reared
ladies of the East.

At the end of the delightful evening he withdrew with Gowan to the
bunkhouse, reluctant to leave, yet aglow with pleasure. Isobel had so
charmed him that he lay in his bunk forgetful of all else than her
limpid blue eyes and dimpled cheeks. But after his two nights of
broken rest he could not long resist the heaviness that pressed
together his eyelids. He fell asleep, smiling at the recollection of
the girl's gracious, "Good-night and pleasant dreams!"

With such a kindly wish from her, his dreams certainly should have
been heavenly. Yet he began the night by sinking into so profound a
sleep that he had no dreams whatever. When at last he did rouse to the
dream-state of consciousness, it was not to enjoy any pleasant fantasy
of music and flowers.

He was lying in Deep Cañon, down at the very bottom of those gloomy
depths. About him was an awful stillness. The river of the abyss was
no longer roaring. It had risen up, up, up to the very rim of the
precipices--and all the tremendous weight of its waters was above him,
bearing down upon him, smothering him, crushing in his chest! He
sought to shriek, and found himself dumb.

Suddenly an Indian stood over him, a gigantic Indian with feet set
upon his breast. The red giant was a medicine man, for he clashed and
rattled an enormous gourd full of bowlders.

The rattle sounded sharper, shriller, more vibrant in the ears of the
rousing sleeper. His eyelids fluttered, rose a little way, and snapped
wide apart. His eyes, bared of their covers, glared in utter horror of
that which they saw. Their pupils dilated, their balls bulged as if
about to burst from the sockets.

The weight was still on his chest,--a weight far more to be dreaded
than a cañon full of water or the foot of an Indian Titan. It was a
weight of living, quivering coils. Above those coils, clearly
illuminated in the full daylight that streamed through the open door
of the bunkhouse, there upreared a hideous gaping maw, set with four
slender curved fangs of dazzling whiteness.

The snake's eyes, green as emeralds, glared down into the face of the
man with such intense malignancy that they seemed to stream forth a
cold evil light. Fortunately he was paralyzed with fright. The
slightest movement would have caused that fanged maw to lash down into
his face.

Something partly obscured the light in the doorway. Ashton was too
terrified to heed. But the snake was more sensitive to the change in
the light. Without altering the deadly poise of its head, it again
sounded its shrill, menacing rattle. The shadow passed and the light
streamed in as before. The rattling ceased. There followed a pause of
a few seconds' duration--To the man every second was an age-long
period of horror.

A faint metallic click came from across the room. Slight as was the
sound, the irritated snake again set its rattle to quivering. The
triangular head flattened back for the delayed stroke at the ashen
face of the man. The billowing coils stiffened--the stroke started. In
the same instant came a report that to the strained ears of the man
sounded like the crashing roar of a cannon.

[Illustration: It sounded its shrill, menacing rattle]

The head and forepart of the snake's body shot alongside his face,
writhing in swift convulsions. The first touch of its cold scales
against his cheek broke the spell of horror that had bound him. He
jerked his head aside, and flung out his left hand to push the hideous
thing from him. As his fingers thrust away the nearest coil, the head
flipped around on its half-severed neck, and the deadly jaws
automatically gaped and snapped together. Two of the dripping poison
fangs struck in the cushion of flesh on the outer edge of Ashton's
hand. With a shriek, he flung the dying snake on the floor and put the
wounded hand to his mouth.

"He struck you!" cried the voice of Isobel, "but only on the hand,
thank goodness! Wait, I'll fix it. Lie still."

She came swiftly across the room, thrusting a long-barreled automatic
pistol into its holster under a fold of her skirt. Her other hand drew
out a locket that was suspended in her bosom.

"Whiskey! I'm bitten!" panted Ashton, sucking frantically at his
wounds. "Quick! I'm bitten. Give me whiskey!"

"Steady, steady," she reassured. "It's not bad--only on your hand.
Give it to me. Here's something a thousand times better than
whiskey--permanganate."

While speaking, she caught up his neckerchief from the head of the
bunk and knotted it about the wrist of the wounded hand tightly enough
to check the circulation.

"Now hold it steady," she directed. "Won't have to use a knife. You
tore open the holes when you jerked off the horrid thing."

Obedient but still sweating with fear, he held up the bleeding hand.
She had opened her locket, in which were a number of small,
dark-purple crystals. Two of the larger ones she thrust lengthwise as
deeply as she could into the little slits gashed by the fangs. Another
large and two small crystals were all that she could force into the
openings.

"There!" she cheerily exclaimed. "That will kill the poison in short
order, and will not hurt you a particle. It's the best thing there is
to cheat rattlers,--just cheap, ordinary permanganate of potash. If
people only had sense enough always to carry a few crystals, no one
would ever die of rattlesnake bites."

"I've--I've heard that whiskey--" began Ashton.

"Yes, and far more victims die from the whiskey than from the bites,"
rejoined Isobel.

"But a stimulant--"

"Stimulant, then heart depressant--first up, then down--that's
alcohol. No, you'll get only one poison, the snake's, this time. So
don't worry. You'll soon be all right. Even had you been struck in the
face, quick action with permanganate would have saved you."

He shuddered. "Ah!... But if you had not come!"

"It was fortunate, wasn't it?" she remarked. "I did not know you were
in here. I was going up to the corral and heard the rattle as I came
past. It was so faint that I might not have noticed it, had not Kid
told of killing the rattler yesterday."

Ashton stared fearfully at his blackening hand. Isobel smiled and
began to unknot the neckerchief.

"There is nothing to fear," she insisted. "That is due only to lack of
circulation. You'll soon be all right. Come up to the house as soon as
you can and get two or three cups of coffee. I'll tell Yuki."

She hastened out. When he had made sure that the still writhing snake
was far over on the floor, he slipped from his bunk and dressed as
quickly as was possible without the use of his numbed hand. Shirt,
trousers, boots--he stopped for no more, but hurried after Isobel.
Whether because of the effects of the poison or merely as the reaction
of the shock, he felt faint and dizzy. Several cups of hot strong
coffee, however, went far towards restoring him.



CHAPTER X

COMING EVENTS


Knowles had gone with Gowan to cut out and drive back the stray cattle
belonging to the adjoining range. They returned during the regular
supper hour. The cowman washed quickly and hastened in to the table.
Gowan, however, loitered just outside the door, fastening and
refastening his neckerchief. He entered the dining-room while Isobel
was in the midst of telling her father about the snake.

"Did you hear, Kid?" she asked, when she finished her vivid account.

"Yes, Miss Chuckie. I was slicking-up close 'longside the door. I
heard all you told," he replied as he took his seat at the corner next
to the animated girl. "We shore have got one mighty lucky tenderfoot
on this range."

"Indeed, yes!" exclaimed Ashton. "Had not Miss Chuckie chanced to be
passing as the monster rattled--You know, she says that she might not
have heeded it but for your killing the other snake yesterday. That
put her on the alert."

The puncher stared across the table at the city man with a coldly
speculative gaze. "You shore are a lucky tenderfoot," he repeated.
"'Tain't every fellow gets that close to a rattler this time of year
and comes out of it as easy as you have. All I can see is you're kind
of pale yet around the gills."

Ashton held up his bandaged left hand. "Ah, but I have also this
memento of the occasion. It is far from a pleasant one, I assure
you."

"Feels 'most as bad as a bee sting, don't it?" ironically condoled the
puncher.

"What I can't make out," interposed Knowles, "is how that rattler got
up into Mr. Ashton's bunk."

Gowan again stared across at the tenderfoot, this time with unblinking
solemnity. "Can't say, Mr. Knowles," he replied. "Except it might be
that desperado guide of his came around in the night and brought him
Mr. Rattler for bedfellow."

"Oh, Kid!" remonstrated Isobel. "It's not a joking matter!"

"No, you're dead right, Miss Chuckie," he agreed. "There shore ain't
any joke about it."

"Ah, but perhaps I can make one," gayly dissented Ashton. "Had you not
interfered, Miss Chuckie, the poor snake would have taken one bite,
and then curled up and died. I'm so charged with nicotine, you know."

Neither Isobel nor the puncher smiled at this ancient witticism. But
Knowles burst into a hearty laugh, which was caught up and reënforced
by the hitherto silent haymakers.

"By--James! Ashton, you'll do!" declared the cowman, wiping his eyes.
"When a tenderfoot can let off a joke like that on himself it's a sure
sign he's getting acclimated. Yes, you'll make a puncher, some day."

Ashton smiled with gratification, and looked at Isobel in eager-eyed
appeal for the confirmation of the statement. She smiled and nodded.

Upon his return from his remarkable ride to town she had assured him
that he need not worry. Her present kindly look and the words of her
father might have been expected to remove his last doubts. Such in
fact was the result for the remainder of the evening.

But that night the new employé must have given much anxious thought to
the question of his future and his great need to "make good." The
liveliness of his concern was shown by his behavior during the next
two weeks. His zeal for work astonished Knowles quite as much as his
efforts to be agreeable to his fellow employés gratified Miss Isobel.
He charmed the Japanese cook with his praise of the cooking, he
flattered the haymakers with his interest in their opinions. Towards
the girl and her father he was impeccably respectful.

Within ten days he was "Lafe" to everybody except Gowan and the Jap.
The latter addressed him as "Mistah Lafe"; Gowan kept to the
noncommittal "Ashton." The puncher had become more taciturn than ever,
but missed none of the home evenings in the parlor. He watched Ashton
with catlike closeness when Isobel was present, and seemed puzzled
that the interloper refrained from courting her.

"Don't savvy that tenderfoot," he remarked one day to Knowles. "All
his talk about his dad being a multimillionaire--Acted like it at the
start-off. Came down to this candidate-for-office way of comporting
himself. It ain't natural."

"Not when he's on the same range with Chuckie?" queried the cowman,
his eyes twinkling. "Why don't you ever go into Stockchute and paint
the town red?"

"That's another thing," insisted Gowan. "He started in with Miss
Chuckie brash as all hell. Now he acts towards her like I feel."

"That's natural. He soon found out she's a lady."

"No, it ain't natural, Mr. Knowles--not in him, it ain't. Nor it ain't
natural for him to be so all-fired polite to everybody, nor his
pestering you to find work for him."

"And it's not natural for a tenderfoot to gentle a hawss like Rocket
the way he's done already," rallied Knowles. "That crazy hawss follows
him about like a dog."

"Yes; Ashton feeds him sugar, like he does the rest of you," rejoined
the puncher. "It ain't natural in his brand of tenderfoot--Bound to
ride out, if there's any riding to do; bound to fuss and stew around
the corral; bound to help with the haying; bound to help haul the
water; bound to practice with his rope every moment he ain't doing
something else. Can't tell me there ain't a nigger in that woodpile."

"Now, don't go to hunting out any more mares' nests, Kid," admonished
Knowles. "He's just a busted millionaire, that's all; and he's proving
he realizes it. Guess the smash scared him. He's afraid he can't make
good. Chuckie says he thinks I'll turn him adrift if he doesn't hustle
enough to earn his salt."

"Why not fire him anyway? You don't need him, and you won't need him,"
argued the puncher.

"Well, he helps keep Chuckie entertained. With you and him both on the
place, she might conclude to stay over the winter, this year."

Gowan's mouth straightened to a thin slit. "Better send her to Denver
right off."

"Look here, Kid," reproved the cowman. "You've had your chance, and
you've got it yet. I've never interfered with you, and I'm not going
to with him. It's for Chuckie to pick the winner. Like as not it'll be
some man in town, for all I know. She has the say. Whether he wears a
derby or a sombrero, she's to have her own choice. I don't care if
he's a millionaire or a busted millionaire or a bronco buster,
provided he's a man, and provided I'm sure he'll treat her right."

Gowan lapsed into a sullen silence.

Mounted as before on Rocket, Ashton had already made a second trip to
Stockchute for mail, returning almost as quickly as on his wild first
ride. Monday of his third week at the ranch he was sent on his third
trip. As before, he started at dawn. But this time he did not come
racing back early enough for a belated noon meal as he had on each of
the previous occasions.

By mid-afternoon Isobel began to grow uneasy. Remarkable as had been
the efforts of his new rider's training, there was the not improbable
chance that Rocket had reverted to his ugly tricks. She shuddered as
she pictured the battered corpse of the city man dragging over the
rocks and through the brush, with a foot twisted fast in one of the
narrow iron stirrups.

Her father and Gowan were off on their usual work of inspecting the
bunches of cattle scattered about the range. The other men were as
busy as ever mowing more hay and hauling in that which was cured. She
was alone at the ranch with the Jap. At four o'clock she saddled her
best horse and rode out towards Dry Fork. She hoped to sight Ashton
from the divide. But there was no sign of any horseman out on the
wide stretch of sagebrush flats.

She rode down to Dry Fork, crossed over the sandy channel, and started
on at a gallop along the half-beaten road that wound away through the
sagebrush towards the distant Split Peak. An hour found her nearing
the piñon clad hills on the far side of Dry Mesa, with still no sign
of Ashton.

By this time she had worked herself into a fever of excitement and
dread. Her relief was correspondingly great when at last she saw him
coming towards her around the bend of the nearest hill. But his horse
was walking and he was bent over in the saddle as if injured or
greatly fatigued. Puzzled and again apprehensive, she urged her pony
to sprinting speed.

When he heard the approaching hoofs Ashton looked up as if startled.
But he did not wave to her or raise his sombrero. As she came racing
up she scrutinized his dejected figure for wounds or bruises. There
was nothing to indicate that he had been either shot or thrown. His
sullen look when she drew up beside him not unnaturally changed her
anxiety to vexation.

"What made you so slow?" she queried. "You know how eager I am for the
mail each time. You might as well have ridden your own hawss."

"It--has come," he muttered.

"What?" she demanded.

"The letter from him."

"Him?" echoed the girl, trying hard to cover her confusion with a look
of surprise.

His dejection deepened as he observed her heightened color and the
light in her eyes. "Yes, from him," he mumbled.

"Oh, you mean Mr. Blake, I suppose," she replied. Lightly as she
spoke, she could not suppress the quiver of eagerness in her voice.
"If you will kindly give it to me now."

He drew out a letter, not from among the other mail in his pouch, but
from his pocket. Her look of surprise showed that she was struck with
the oddness of this. She was too excited, however, to consider what
might be its meaning. She tore open the letter and read it swiftly.
Her sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks when she looked up served only
to increase Ashton's gloom.

"So the fellow is coming," he groaned. "What else could I have
expected?"

The girl held out the open letter to him. It was in typewriting,
addressed from Chicago, and read:--

  Dear Madam:

  In reply to your letter of inquiry regarding an inspection to
  determine the feasibility of irrigating certain lands in your
  vicinity--my fee for personal inspection and opinion would be
  $50. per day and expenses, if I came as consulting engineer.
  However, I am about to make a trip to Colorado. If you can
  furnish good ranch fare for my wife, son, and self as guests,
  will look over your situation without charge. Wife wishes to
  rough-it, but must have milk and eggs. Will leave servants in
  car at Stockchute, where we shall expect a conveyance to meet us
  Thursday, the 25th inst., if terms agreeable.

                                       Respectfully yours,
                                                   THOMAS BLAKE.

Ashton crumpled the letter in his clenched hand as he had crumpled the
letter from his father's lawyers.

"He is coming! he really is coming!" he gasped. "Thursday--only three
days! Genevieve too!"

"And his son!" cried Isobel, too excited to heed the dismay in her
companion's look and tone. "He and his family, too, as my guests!"

"Yes," said Ashton bitterly. "And what of it when he floods you off
your cattle range? By another year or two, the irrigation farmers will
be settling all over this mesa, thick as flies."

"Oh, no; it is probable that Mr. Blake will find there is no chance to
water Dry Mesa," she replied, in a tone strangely nonchalant
considering her former expressions of apprehension. She drew the
crumpled letter from his relaxing fingers, and smoothed it out for a
second reading.

"'Wife, son, and self,'" she quoted. "Son? How old is he?"

"I don't know. They've been married nearly two years," muttered
Ashton.

"Then it's a baby!--oh! oh! how lovely!" shrieked the girl. "And its
mamma wants to rough it! She shall have every egg and chicken on the
place--and gallons of cream! We shall take the skim milk."

Still Ashton failed to enthuse. "To them that have, shall be given,
and from him who has lost millions shall be taken all that's left!" he
gibed.

"No, we'll still have the skim milk," she bantered, refusing to notice
his cynical bitterness.

"I'm a day laborer!" he went on, still more bitterly. "I'm afraid of
losing even my skim milk--And two weeks ago I thought myself certain
of three times the millions that he will get when her father dies!"

"No use crying over spilt milk, or spilt cream, either!" she replied.

The note of sympathetic concern under her raillery brought a glimmer
of hopefulness into his moody eyes.

"If I did not think your father will drive me away!" he murmured.

"Why should he?" she asked.

"Because when Blake comes--" Ashton paused and shifted to a question.
"Will you tell your father about their coming?"

"Of course. I did not tell him about writing, because it would only
have increased his suspense. But now--Let's hurry back!"

A cut of her quirt set her pony into a lope. Rocket needed no urging.
He followed and maintained a position close behind the galloping pony
without breaking out of his rangy trot. Occasionally Isobel flung back
a gay remark over her shoulder. Ashton did not respond. He rode after
her, silent and depressed, his eyes fixed longingly on her graceful
form, ever fleeing forward before him as he advanced.

Once clear of the sagebrush, she drew rein for him to come up. They
rode side by side across Dry Fork and over the divide. When they
stopped at the corral she would have unsaddled her pony had he not
begged leave to do her the service. As reward, she waited until he
could accompany her to the house.

They found her father and Gowan resting in the cool porch after a
particularly hard day's ride. The puncher was strumming soft melodies
on a guitar. Knowles was peering at his report of the Reclamation
Service, held to windward of a belching cloud of pipe smoke. His
daughter darted to him regardless of the offending incense.

"Oh, Daddy!" she cried. "What do you think! Mr. Blake is coming to
visit us!"

"Blake?" repeated the cowman, staring blankly over his pipe.

"Yes, Mr. Blake, the engineer--the great Thomas Blake of the Zariba
Dam."

"By--James!" swore Gowan, dropping his guitar and springing up to
confront Ashton with deadly menace in his cold eyes. "This is what
comes of nursing scotched rattlers! This here tenderfoot skunk has
been foreriding for that engineer! I warned you, Mr. Knowles! I told
you he had sent for him to come out here and cut up our range with his
damned irrigation schemes!"

"I send for Blake--I?" protested Ashton. He burst into a discordant
laugh.

"Laugh, will you?" said Gowan, dropping his hand to his hip.

The girl flung herself before him. "Stop! stop, Kid! Are you locoed?
He had nothing to do with it. I myself sent for Mr. Blake."

"_You!_" cried Gowan.

The cowman slowly stood up, his eyes fixed on the girl in an
incredulous stare. "Chuckie," he half whispered, "you couldn't ha'
done it. You're--you're dreaming, honey!"

"No. Listen, Daddy! It's been growing on you so--your fear that we'll
lose our range. I thought if Mr. Blake came and told you it can't be
done--Don't you see?"

"What if he finds it can?" huskily demanded Knowles.

"He can't. I'm sure he can't. If he builds a reservoir, where could he
get enough water to fill it? The watershed above us is too small. He
couldn't impound more than three thousand acre feet of flood waters
at the utmost."

"How about the whole river going to waste, down in Deep Cañon?"
queried her father.

"Heavens, Mr. Knowles! How would he ever get a drop of water out of
that awful chasm?" exclaimed Ashton. "I looked down into it. The river
is thousands of feet down. It must be way below the level of Dry
Mesa."

"I'm not so sure about that," replied the cowman. "Holes are mighty
deceiving."

"Well, what if it ain't so deep as the mesa?" argued Gowan, for once
half in accord with Ashton. "It shore is deep enough, ain't it? Even
allowing that this man Blake is the biggest engineer in the U.S.,
how's he going to pump that water up over the rim of the cañon? The
devil himself couldn't do it."

"If I am mistaken regarding the depth, that is, if the river really is
higher than the mesa," remarked Ashton, "there is the possibility that
it might be tapped by a tunnel through the side of High Mesa. But even
if it is possible, it still is quite out of the question. The cost
would be prohibitive."

"You see, Daddy!" exclaimed Isobel. "Lafe knows. He's an engineer
himself."

"How's that?" growled her father, frowning heavily at Ashton. "You
never told me you're an engineer."

"I told Miss Chuckie the first day I met her," explained Ashton. "Ever
since then I've been so busy trying to be something else--"

"Shore you have!" jeered Gowan.

"But about Mr. Blake, Daddy?" interposed Isobel. "I'm certain he'll
find that no irrigation project is possible; and if _he_ says so, you
will be able to give up worrying about it."

"So that's your idea," he replied. "Of course, honey, you meant well.
But he's a pretty big man, according to all the reports. What if he--"
The cowman stopped, unable to state the calamity he dreaded.

"Yes, what if?" bravely declared his daughter. "Isn't it best to know
the worst, and have it over?"

"Well--I don't know but what you're right, honey."

"It's your say, Mr. Knowles," put in Gowan. "If you want the
tenderfeet on your range, all right. If you don't, I'll engage to head
back any bunch of engineers agoing, and I don't care whether they're
dogies or longhorns."

"There is to be no surveying party," explained Isobel. "Mr. Blake is
coming to visit us with his wife and baby. Here is his letter."

"Hey?" ejaculated Knowles. He read the letter with frowning
deliberation, and passed it on to Gowan. "Well, he seems to be square
enough. Guess we'll have to send over for him, honey, long as you
asked him to come."

"Oh, you will, Daddy!" she cried. She gave him a delicious kiss and
cuddled against his shoulder coaxingly. "You'll let me go over in the
buckboard for them, won't you?"

"Kind of early in the season for you to begin hankering after city
folks," he sought to tease her.

"But think of the baby!" she exclaimed as excitedly as a little girl
over the prospect of a doll. "A baby on our ranch! I simply must see
it at the earliest possible moment! Besides, it will look better for
our hospitality for me to meet Mrs. Blake at the train, since
she--That's something I meant to ask you, Lafe. What does Mr. Blake
mean by saying they will leave the servants in the car?"

"I presume they are traveling in Mr. Leslie's private car, and will
have it sidetracked at Stockchute," answered Ashton.

"_Whee-ew!_" ejaculated Knowles. "Private car! And we're supposed to
feed them!"

"It is just because of the change we will give them that they are
coming out here," surmised Isobel. "Look at the letter again. Mr.
Blake expressly writes that his wife wishes to rough-it. Of course she
cannot know what real roughing-it means. But if she is coming to us
without a maid, we shall like her as much as--as Mr. Blake."



CHAPTER XI

SELF-DEFENSE


Nothing more was said about the trip to town until late Wednesday
evening. As Knowles slammed shut his book and the young men rose to
withdraw to the bunkhouse, he asked Gowan casually: "Got those harness
hawsses in the corral?"

"Brought 'em in this afternoon. Greased the buckboard and overhauled
the harness. Everything's in shape," answered the puncher.

Knowles merely nodded. Yet in the morning, immediately after the usual
early breakfast, Gowan went up to the corral and returned driving a
lively pair of broncos to the old buckboard. Ashton happened to come
around the house as Knowles stepped from the front door. The cowman
was followed by his daughter, attired in a new riding habit and a
fashionable hat with a veil.

"You're just in time, Lafe," said Knowles. "Saddle a couple of hawsses
and follow Chuckie to town. I misdoubt that seat is cramped for three,
and a baby to boot."

"But I--it looks quite wide to me," said Ashton, flushing and drawing
back.

"You know the size of Blake and his lady--I don't," replied the
cowman. "Just the same, I want you to go along with Chuckie. There's
not a puncher in this section would harm her, drunk or sober; but the
fellows that come in and go out on the railroad are sometimes another
sort."

"Of course I--if necessary," stammered Ashton. "Yet may I ask you to
excuse me? In the event of trouble, Mr. Gowan, you know--"

"Great snakes!" called Gowan from the buckboard. "Needn't ask _me_ to
go, twice!"

"Can't spare you today," said Knowles, his keen eyes fixed on Ashton
in unconcealed amazement.

It was inconceivable. For the first time in his career as an employé,
the tenderfoot was attempting to evade a duty,--a duty that comprised
a fifty-mile ride in company with Miss Isobel Knowles!

The girl looked at Ashton with a perfect composure that betrayed no
trace of her feelings.

"I'm sure there's no reason whatever why Lafe should go, if he does
not wish to," she remarked. "Any of my hawsses will lead to the
buckboard."

"He's going to town with you," said Knowles, his jaw setting hard with
stubborn determination.

"Why, of course, Mr. Knowles, if you really think it necessary,"
reluctantly acquiesced Ashton. He put his hand into his pocket,
shrugged, and asked in a hesitating manner: "May I request--I have
only a small amount left from that five dollars. If you consider there
are any wages owing me--Going to town, you know."

"Lord!" said the cowman. "So that's what you stuck on. 'Fraid of
running out of change with a lady along. Here's the balance of your
first month's wages, and more, if you want it."

He drew out a fat wallet and began counting out banknotes.

"Oh, no, not so many," said Ashton. "I wish only what you consider as
owing to me now."

"You'll take an even hundred," ordered Knowles, forcing the money on
him. "A man doesn't feel just right in town unless he's well heeled.
Only don't show more than a ten at a time in the saloon."

"You have chosen me to act as your daughter's escort," replied
Ashton.

Quick to catch the inference of his remark, Isobel flashed him a look
of approval, but called banteringly as she darted out to the
buckboard: "Better move, if you expect to get near enough to escort
me, this side of Stockchute."

Gowan sprang down to hand her into the buckboard. She took the reins
from him and spoke to the fidgetting broncos. They plunged forward and
started off on a lope. Ashton perceived that she did not intend to
wait for him. He caught Gowan's look of mingled exultance and envy,
and dashed for the corral. Rocket was outside, but at his call trotted
to meet him, whinnying for his morning's lump of sugar. Ashton flung
on saddle and bridle, and slipped inside the corral to rope his own
pony. Haste made him miss the two first throws. At last he noosed the
pony, and slapped on the girl's saddle and bridle.

As he raced off, pounding the pony with his rope to keep him alongside
Rocket, Knowles waved to him from the house. He had saddled up in less
than twice the time that Gowan could have done it,--which was a record
for a tenderfoot. He waved back, but his look was heavy despite the
excitement of the pursuit.

He expected to overtake Isobel in a few minutes. This he could have
done had he been able to give Rocket free rein. But he had to hold
back for the slower-gaited pony. Also, the girl had more of a start
than he had at first realized, and she did her best to hold the
handicap. Hitched to the light buckboard, her young broncos could have
run a good part of the way to Stockchute. She was far out on the flat
before she at last tired of the wild bumping over ruts and sagebrush
roots, and pulled her horses down to a walk.

"I could have kept ahead clear across to the hills," she flung back at
him as he galloped up.

"You shouldn't have been so reckless!" he reproached. "Every moment
I've been dreading to see you bounced out."

"That's the fun of it," she declared, her cheeks aglow and eyes
sparkling with delight.

"But the road is so rough!" he protested. "Wouldn't it be easier for
you to ride my pony? He's like a rocking-chair."

"No," she refused. But she smiled, by no means ill pleased at his
solicitude for her comfort. She halted the broncos, and said
cordially: "Tie the saddle hawsses to the back rail, and pile in. We
may as well be sociable."

He hastened to accept the invitation. She moved over to the left side
of the seat and relinquished the lines to him. With most young ladies
this would have been a matter-of-course proceeding; from so
accomplished a horsewoman it was a tactful compliment. He appreciated
it at its full value, and his mood lightened. They rattled gayly
along, on across the flats, up and down among the piñon clad hills,
and through the sage and greasewood of the valleys.

He had thought the country a desolate wilderness; but now it seemed
a Garden of Eden. Never had the girl's loveliness been more
intoxicating, never had her manner to him been more charming and
gracious. He could not resist the infection of her high spirits. For
the greater part of the trip he gave himself over to the delight of
her merry eyes and dimpling, rosy cheeks, her adorable blushes and
gay repartee.

All earthly journeys and joys have an ending. The buckboard creaked up
over the round of the last and highest hill, and they came in sight of
the little shack town down across the broad valley. Though five miles
away, every house, every telegraph pole, even the thin lines of the
railroad rails appeared through the dry clear air as distinct as a
miniature painting. Miles beyond, on the far side of the valley,
uprose the huge bulk of Split Peak, with its white-mantled shoulders
and craggy twin peaks.

But neither Ashton nor Isobel exclaimed on this magnificent view of
valley and peak. Each fell silent and gazed soberly down at the dozen
scattered shacks that marked the end of their outward trip. Rapidly
the gravity of Ashton's face deepened to gloom and from gloom to
dejection. The horses would have broken into a lope on the down grade.
He held them to a walk.

Chancing to gaze about and see his face, the girl started from her
bright-eyed daydream. "Why, Lafe! what is it?" she inquired. "You look
as you did the other day, when you brought the mail."

"It's--everything!" he muttered.

"As what?" she queried.

He shrugged hopelessly, hesitated, and drew out the roll of bills
forced on him by Knowles. "Tell me, please, just how much of this is
mine, at your father's usual rate of wages, and deducting the real
value of that calf."

"Why, I can't just say, offhand," she replied. "But why should you--"

"I shall tell you as soon as--but first--" He drew out his watch.
"This cost me two hundred and fifty dollars. It is the only thing I
have worth trading. Would you take it in exchange for Rocket and the
balance of this hundred dollars over and above what is due me?"

"Why--no, of course, I wouldn't think of such a thing. It would be
absurd, cheating yourself that way. Anyhow, Rocket is your horse to
ride, as long as you wish to."

"But I would like him for my own. How about trading him for my pony
and the wages due me?"

"Well, that wouldn't be an unfair bargain. Your hawss is the best cow
pony of the two."

"It is very kind of you to agree, Miss Chuckie! Here is all the
money; and here is the watch. I wish you to accept it from me as
a--memento."

"Mr. Ashton!" she exclaimed, indignantly widening the space between
them as much as the seat would permit.

"Please!" he begged. "Don't you understand? I am going away."

"Going away?" she echoed.

"Yes."

"But--why?"

"Because he is coming."

"Mr. Blake?"

"Yes. I cannot stay after he--"

"But why not? Has he injured you? Are you afraid of him?"

"No. I'm afraid that you--" Ashton's voice sank to a whisper--"that
you will believe what he--what they will say against me."

"Oh!" she commented, her expression shifting swiftly from sympathetic
concern to doubt.

He caught the change in her look and tone, and flushed darkly.

"There are sometimes two sides to a story," he muttered.

"Tell me your side now," she suggested, with her usual directness.

His eyes fell before her clear honest gaze. His flush deepened. He
hung his head, biting his twisted lip. After several moments he began
to speak in a hesitating broken murmur:

"I've always been--wild. But I graduated from Tech.--not at the foot
of my class. My father--always busy piling up millions--never a word
or thought for me, except when I overspent my allowance. I was in
a--fast set. My father--threatened me. I had to make good. I took a
position in old Leslie's office--Genevieve's father. I--"

He paused, licked his lips, hesitated, and abruptly went on again,
this time speaking with almost glib facility: "There was an engineers'
contest for a projected bridge over Michamac Strait. I started to draw
plans, that I might enter the contest, but I did not finish in time.
The plans of the other engineers were all rejected. I continued to
work on mine. After the contest I happened to pick up a piece of torn
plan out of the office wastebasket, and it gave me a suggestion how to
improve the central span of my bridge."

"Yes?" asked the girl, her interest deepening.

He again licked his lips, hesitated, and continued: "There was no
name on that torn plan--nothing to indicate to whom it had belonged.
So I used it--that is, the suggestion I got from it, and was awarded
the bridge on my plans. This made me the Resident Engineer of the
bridge, and I had it almost completed when this man Blake came back
from Africa after Genevieve, and claimed that I had--had stolen his
plans of the bridge. It seems they were lost in Mr. Leslie's office.
He claimed he had handed them in to me for the contest. But so had
all the other contestants, and their plans were not lost. It may have
been that one of the doorkeepers tore his plans up, out of
revenge. Blake was a very rough brute of a fellow at that time. He
quarreled with the doorkeeper because the man would not admit him
to see Mr. Leslie--threatened to smash him. Afterwards he accused
Mr. Leslie of stealing his plans."

"Oh, no, no! he couldn't have done that! He can't be that kind of a
man!" protested Isobel.

"It's true! Even he will not deny it. Old Leslie thought him
crazy--then. It was different when he came back and accused me! He had
been shipwrecked with Genevieve. They were alone together all those
weeks, and so one can--" Ashton checked himself. "No, you must not
think--He saved her. When they came back he claimed the bridge as his
own--those lost plans."

"His plans? So that was it! And you--?"

"Of course they believed him. What was my word against his with
Genevieve and Leslie. Leslie's consulting engineer was an old pal of
Blake's. So of course I--I'll say though that Blake agreed to put it
that I had only borrowed his idea of the central span."

"That was generous of him, if he really believed--"

"Did he?--did Genevieve? Do they believe it now? You see why I must go
away."

"I don't any such thing," rejoined the girl.

"You don't?" he exclaimed. "When they are coming here, believing I
did it! They must believe it, all of them! And my father--after all
this time--They agreed not to tell him. Yet he has found out. That
letter, up at the waterhole--it was from his lawyers. He had cut me
off--branded me as an outcast."

"Without waiting to hear your side--without asking you to explain? How
unjust! how unfair!" cried Isobel.

Ashton winced. "I--I told you I--my record was against me. But I was
his son--he had no right to brand me as a--a thief! My valet read the
letter. He must have told the guide--the scoundrels!"

Tears of chagrin gathered in the young man's dark eyes. He bit his lip
until the blood ran.

"O-o-oh!" sighed the girl. "It's all been frightfully unjust! You
haven't had fair play! I shall tell Mr. Blake."

"No, not him!--not him!" Ashton's voice was almost shrill. "All I wish
is to slip away, before they see me."

"You don't mean, run away?" she said, quietly placing her little
gauntlet-gloved hand on his arm. "You're not going to run away,
Lafe."

"What else?" he asked, his eyes dark with bitter despair. "Would you
have me return, to be booted off the range when they tell your
father?"

"Just wait and see," she replied, gazing at him with a reassuring
smile. "You've proved yourself a right smart puncher--for a
tenderfoot. You're in the West, the good old-style West, where it's a
man's present record that counts; not what he has been or what he has
done. No, you're not going to run. You're going to face it out--and
going to stay to learn your new profession of puncher and--_man_!"

"But they will not wish to associate with me."

"Yes, they will," she predicted. "I shall see to that."

He took heart a little from her cheery, positive assurance. "Well, if
you insist, I shall not go until they show--"

"They'll not recognize you at first. That will give me a chance to
speak before they can say anything disagreeable. I'm sure Mr. Blake
will understand."

"But--Genevieve?"

"If she married him when he was as rough as you say, and if he agrees
to let bygones be bygones, you need have no fear of Mrs. Blake. Only
be sure to go into raptures over the baby. Tell her it's the perfect
image of its father."

"What if it isn't?" objected Ashton gloomily.

She dimpled. "One must allow for the difference in age; and there's
always some resemblance--each must have a mouth and eyes and ears and
a nose."

He caught himself on the verge of laughter. Her eyes were fixed upon
him, pure and honest and dancing with mirth. A sudden flood of
crimson swept up his face from his bristly, tanned chin to his white
forehead. He averted his gaze from hers.

"You're _good_!" he choked out. "I don't deserve--But I can't go--when
you tell me to stay!"

"Of course you can't," she lightly rejoined. "Look! There's the train
coming. Push on the lines!"



CHAPTER XII

THE MEETING


A word started the horses into a lope. The buckboard was whirled along
over the last two miles to Stockchute in a wild race against the
train. The steam horse won. It had sidetracked the private car
attached to the rear of the last pullman and was puffing away
westward, when Ashton guided his running team in among the crude
shacks of the town. He swung around at a more moderate pace towards
the big chute for cattle-loading, and fetched up a few yards out from
the rear step of the private car.

An assiduous porter had already swung down with a box step. A big,
square-faced, square-framed man of twenty-eight or thirty stepped out
into the car vestibule. He sprang to the ground as Miss Knowles
stepped from the buckboard. She had lowered her veil, but it failed to
mask the extreme brilliancy of her eyes and her quick changes of
color. Her face, flushed from the excitement of the race into town,
went white when she first saw the man in the vestibule; flushed again
when he sprang down; again paled; and, last of all, glowed radiantly
as she advanced to meet him.

He hastened to her, baring his big head of its Panama, and staring at
her fashionable hat and dress in frank surprise.

"Mr. Blake!" she murmured.

At the sound of her voice he started and fixed his light blue eyes on
her veiled face with a keen glance. She turned pale and as quickly
blushed, as if embarrassed by his scrutiny.

"Excuse me!" he apologized. "You are Miss Knowles?"

"Yes," she murmured.

"Knowles?" he repeated, half to himself. "Strange! Haven't I met you
before?"

"In Denver?" she suggested. "I spend my winters in Denver. But there
was one in Europe."

"No, it wouldn't be either. You must excuse me, Miss Knowles. There
was something about your voice and face--rather threw me off my
balance. If you'll kindly overlook the bungling start-off! I'm greatly
pleased to meet you. My wife will be, too. May I ask you to step
aboard the car?--No, here she is now."

A graceful, rather small lady, dressed with elegant simplicity, had
come out into the car vestibule.

"Jenny, here's Miss Knowles now," said Blake. "She came to meet us
herself."

"That was very good of you, Miss Knowles," said the lady, as the two
advanced towards her. "We are very glad to meet you. Will you not
come up out of the sun?"

The white-uniformed porter promptly stood at attention. Blake as
promptly offered his hand. The girl accepted his assistance and
mounted the car steps with an absence of awkwardness instantly noted
by Mrs. Blake. That lady held out a somewhat thin white hand as Isobel
drew off her gauntlet gloves. But she did not stop with the light firm
handclasp. Lifting the girl's veil, she kissed her full on her coral
lips.

"We shall be friends," she stated, a smile in her hazel eyes.

"I hope so," murmured the girl, blushing with delight. "The only
question is whether you will like me."

Mrs. Blake patted the plump, sunbrowned hand that she had not yet
relinquished. She was little if any older than the girl, but her air
was that of matronly wisdom. "My dear, can you doubt it? I was
prepared to like even the kind of young woman my husband told me to
expect."

"Bronco Bess, Queen of the Cattle Camp," suggested the girl, dimpling.
"Wait till you see me rope and hogtie a steer."

Mrs. Blake smiled, and looked across at Ashton, who sat motionless
under the shadow of his big sombrero, his face half averted from the
car.

"I've a real surprise for you," said the girl. "Mr. Blake, if I may
tell it to you also."

Blake swung up the steps, hat in hand. "It can't be half as pleasant
as the surprise you've already given us," he said.

"I fear not," she replied, with a quick change to gravity. She looked
earnestly into their faces. "Still, I hope--yes, I really believe it
will please you when you consider it. But first, I want to tell you
that out here it's our notion that a man should be rated according to
his present life, and not blamed for his past mistakes."

"Certainly not!" agreed Mrs. Blake, with a swift glance at her
husband. "If a man has mounted to a higher level, he should be upheld,
not dragged down again."

"That's good old-style Western fair play," added Blake.

"I'm so glad you take it that way!" said Isobel. "A young man utterly
ruined in fortune--partly at least through his own fault--came to us
and asked to be hired. He has been a hard worker and a gentleman. His
name is Lafayette Ashton."

"Ashton?" said Blake, his face as impassive as a granite mask.

"Yes. He has told me all about the bridge. He wished to go away,
because he thought you and Mrs. Blake would not like to meet him. I
told him you would be willing to let bygones be bygones, and help him
start off with a new tally card."

"Lafayette Ashton working--as a cowboy!" murmured Mrs. Blake.

"He is still a good deal of a tenderfoot. But he is learning fast; and
work!--the way he pesters Daddy to find him something to do!"

"He certainly must be a changed man," dryly commented Blake.

"_Cherchez la femme_," said his wife.

"Mrs. Blake!" protested the girl, blushing.

"What's that?" he asked.

"'Find the woman,'" explained Mrs. Blake.

"That's easy," he said, fixing his twinkling eyes on the rosy-faced
girl.

"But I'm sure it has not been because of me--at least not altogether,"
she qualified with her uncompromising honesty.

"I wouldn't blame him even if it was altogether," said Blake.

"Then you will be willing to overlook your past trouble with him?"

"Since you say he has straightened out--yes."

"That's good of you! That's what I expected of you!" exclaimed the
girl. "That is he, in the buckboard."

Without a word, Blake started down the car steps.

"Bring him here at once, Tom," said Mrs. Blake.

Her husband went up beside the motionless figure in the buckboard and
held out his hand. "Glad to meet you, Ashton," he said with
matter-of-fact heartiness. "Jenny wants you to come to her. We're not
ready to start, as we were not certain we would be met."

"Miss--Mrs. Blake wishes me to come!" mumbled Ashton.

"Yes," said Blake, gripping the other's hesitatingly extended hand.

Ashton flushed darkly. "But I--I can't leave the horses," he replied.

Blake signed to the porter, who hastened forward. "Hold the lines for
this gentleman, Sam."

Ashton reluctantly gave the lines into the mulatto's sallow hands and
stepped from the buckboard. His head hung forward as he followed
Blake. But at the foot of the steps he removed his sombrero and forced
himself to look up. Isobel was smiling down at him encouragingly. He
looked from her to Mrs. Blake, his handsome face crimson with shame.

"How do you do, Lafayette?" Mrs. Blake greeted him with quiet
cordiality. "This is a pleasant surprise."

"Yes--yes, indeed! I--yes, very!" he stammered, so embarrassed that he
would have stuck at the foot of the steps had not Blake started him up
with a vigorous boost.

Mrs. Blake gave him her hand. "You look so strong and hearty!" she
remarked. "It speaks well for the fare Miss Knowles provides."

"Oh, that credit is due our Jap chef," laughed the girl. "I can cut
out a cow from the herd better than I can bone a chop. But the butter
and eggs and cream that are awaiting you--Which reminds me that we've
yet to see It."

"It?" asked Blake.

"Yes, him--the _baby_!"

"Oh, you dear girl!" cooed Mrs. Blake. "Come in and see him."

Isobel followed her into the car. Blake nodded to Ashton. But the
younger man shrank away from the door.

"If you'll kindly excuse me," he muttered. "It would remind me too
much of--the time when--No, I'd rather not."

"Of course," assented Blake with ready understanding. "How do you like
this country? I went through here once on a railway survey. It's rare
good luck--this chance to visit Miss Knowles. Jenny is a little run
down, as you see."

"I shall trust that her visit to this locality will soon quite restore
her," remarked Ashton.

"It will. The doctors said Maine; I said Colorado. It has done you no
end of good. You are looking particularly fine and fit."

"It has helped me--in more ways than one," murmured Ashton.

"Glad to hear you say it!" responded Blake in hearty approval.

Ashton turned from him as Isobel appeared in the doorway, cuddling a
lusty, rosy-cheeked baby. The mother hovered close behind her.

"Look at him!" jeered Blake with heavily feigned derision. "Did you
ever see such a big, fat, lubberly--"

"Yes, look at him, Lafe," said the girl, stepping out into the
vestibule. "He is only a yearling, but isn't he just the perfect image
of his father?"

Ashton burst into a ringing laugh, but abruptly checked himself at
sight of the sober face of the young mother. "I--I beg pardon!" he
stammered. "I--she--Miss Knowles--that is what she told me to tell you
about him."

"And you didn't play up worth a little bit, Lafe!" complained the
girl.

It was Blake's turn to laugh. "You--!" he accused. "Schemed to frame
up a case on us did you!"

His wife smiled faintly, not altogether certain that an aspersion had
not been cast upon her chuckling son.

"But it's partly true, really," remarked Ashton, peering at the baby's
big pale-blue eyes.

Blake burst into a hilarious roar. But Mrs. Blake now beamed upon
Ashton. "Then you, too, see the resemblance, Lafayette! Isn't it
wonderful, and he so young? His name is Thomas Herbert Vincent Leslie
Blake.--Now, my dear, if you please, I shall take him in. We must be
preparing to start, if it is so long a drive."

"Do let me hold him until you and Mr. Blake are ready," begged the
girl.

"I am not quite sure that--You will be careful not to drop him? He is
tremendously strong, and he squirms," dubiously assented the fond
mother. "Come, Tom. We must not keep Miss Knowles waiting."

Blake disappeared with her into the luxuriously furnished car.

"Isn't he a dear?" cooed the girl, clasping the baby to her bosom and
kissing his chubby clenched hands. He stared up into her glowing face
with his round light-blue eyes. "Thomas Blake!--Tom Blake!" she
whispered.

Ashton did not heed the words. He was gazing too intently at the girl
and the child. His eyes glistened with a wonderment and longing so
exquisitely intense that it was like a pain. The girl sank down in one
of the cane chairs and laid the baby on his back. He kicked and
gurgled, seized one of his upraised feet and thrust a pink big toe in
between his white milk teeth.

"That's more than you can do, Lafe!" challenged the girl.

She glanced up, dimpling with merriment,--met the adoration in his
eyes, and looked down, blushing. He attempted to speak, but the words
choked into an incoherent sound like a sob. He jumped from the car and
hurried to take the lines from the porter.



CHAPTER XIII

THE OTHER LADY'S HUSBAND


Miss Knowles did not seem to observe Ashton's deflection. She remained
worshipfully downbent over the wriggling, chuckling baby until its
parents reappeared.

Mrs. Blake had changed to an easy and serviceable dress of plain,
strong material. The skirt, cut to walking length, showed that
her feet and ankles were protected by a pair of absurdly small
laced boots. Her husband had shifted to an equally serviceable
costume--flannel shirt, broad-brimmed felt hat, and surveyor's
boots.

"Crossing the plains we packed a trunk with what we considered most
necessary," said Mrs. Blake, as she took the baby. "It is not a large
one, and in addition there is only my satchel and the level and the
lunch my maid is putting up for us."

"There is room for more, if you wish," replied Isobel. "But we can
send over here for anything you need, any time."

"You're not going to let us really rough-it!" complained Mrs. Blake,
as her husband swung her to the ground. "Were it not for Thomas
Herbert--"

"--We'd go to Africa again and eat lions," Blake completed the
sentence. "Wait, though--we may have a chance at mountain lions."

The porter had gone to help a manservant fetch the trunk from the
other end of the car. Isobel untied the saddle horses from the rear of
the buckboard. The trunk was lifted in, and Blake lashed it on,
together with his level rod and tripod, using Ashton's lariat.

"Level is in the trunk," he explained, in response to Ashton's look of
inquiry. "I suppose we ride."

"I think it will be better if Lafe drives," objected Isobel. "I am so
reckless, and you don't know the road, as he does. The only thing is
Rocket--Lafe has about trained him out of his tricks. But I should
warn you that the hawss has been rather vicious."

"Tom will ride him," confidently stated Mrs. Blake.

Her husband took the bridle reins of the big horse and mounted him
with the agility of a cowboy. For a moment Rocket stood motionless.
Then, whether because of Blake's weight or the fact that he was a
stranger, all the beast's newly acquired docility vanished. He began
to plunge and buck even more violently than when first mounted by
Ashton.

Half a hundred Stockchuteites--all the residents of the town and
several floaters--had come down to inspect the palatial private car
and its passengers. At Rocket's first leap these highly interested
spectators broke into a murmur of joyful anticipation. They were about
to see the millionaire tenderfoot pull leather.

Yet somehow the event failed to transpire. Blake sat the flat saddle
as if glued fast to it. His knees and legs were crushing against the
sides of the leaping, whirling beast with the firmness of an iron
vise. He held both hands upraised, away from the "leather."

Presently Rocket's efforts began to flag. Instead of seeking to quiet
the frantic beast, Blake began to whoop and to strike him with his
hat. Thus taunted, Rocket resorted to his second trick. He took the
bit in his teeth and started to bolt. The crowd scattered before
the rush of the runaway. But they need not have moved. Blake
reached down on each side of the beast's outstretched neck and
pulled. Tough-mouthed as he was, Rocket could not resist that
powerful grip. His head was drawn down and backwards until his trumpet
nostrils blew against his deep chest. After half a dozen wild plunges,
he was forced to a stand, snorting but subdued.

"That's some riding, Miss Chuckie!" called the burly sheriff of the
county. "Your guest forks a hawss like a buster."

The girl rode forward beside Blake, her face radiant. She paid him the
highest of compliments by taking his riding as a matter of course; but
in her eyes was a look strangely like that of his wife's fond gaze,--a
look of pride at his achievement, rather than admiration.

"We'll ride ahead of the team to keep clear of the dust," she
remarked.

He twisted about and saw that Ashton was starting to drive after them.
His wife's elderly maid was waving her handkerchief from one of the
car windows. The porter and the manservant stood at attention. He
exchanged a nod and smile with his wife, patted Rocket's arched neck
and clicked to him to start.

"This is great, Miss Knowles!" he said. "I did not look for such fun,
first crack out of the box. And--if you don't mind my saying it--it's
such a jolly surprise your being what you are."

The girl blushed with pleasure. "I--we have been so eager to meet
you," she murmured. She added hurriedly, "On account of your wonderful
work as an engineer, you know."

"I wouldn't have suspected Ashton of bragging for me," he replied.

"Oh, he--he says you have a remarkable knack of hitting on the
solution of problems. But it's in the engineering journals and reports
that we've read about your work. Perhaps that is why you thought we
had met before. After reading about you so much, I felt that I already
knew you, and so my manner, you know--"

He shook his head at this seemingly ingenuous explanation. "No, there
is something about your voice and face--" His eyes clouded with
the grief of a painful memory; his head sank forward until his square
chin touched his broad chest. He muttered brokenly: "But that's
impossible.... Anyway--better for them they died--better than to
live after...."

Behind her veil the girl's face became deathly white. He raised his
head and looked at her with a wistful gleam of hope. She had averted
her face from him and was gazing off at the hills with dim unseeing
eyes.

"Pardon me, Miss Knowles," he said, "but do you mind if I ask what is
your first name?"

She hesitated almost imperceptibly before replying: "I am called
Chuckie--Chuckie Knowles. Doesn't that sound cowgirlish? We always
have a chuck-wagon on the round-ups, you know. But it's a name that
used to be quite common in the West."

"Yes, it comes from the Spanish Chiquita," he said. He repeated the
word with the soft caressing Spanish accent, "_Che-keé-tah!_"

A flood of scarlet swept up into the girl's pallid face, and slowly
subsided to her normal rich coloring. After a short silence she asked
in a conventional tone: "I suppose you are glad to get away from
Chicago. The last papers we received say that the East is sweltering
in one of those smothery heat waves."

"It's the humidity and close air that kills," said Blake. "I ought to
know. I lived for years in the slums."

"Oh, you--you really speak of it--openly!" the girl exclaimed.

"What of it?" he asked, astonished in turn at her lack of tact.

"Nothing--nothing," she hastened to disclaim. "Only I know--have read
about the dreadful conditions in the Chicago slums. It is--it must be
so painful to recall them--That was so rude of me to--"

"Not at all," he interrupted. To cover her evident confusion he held
up his white hand in the scorching sunrays and commented jovially:
"Talk about Eastern heat--this is a hundred and five Fahrenheit at the
very least! A-a-ah!" He drew in a deep breath of the dry pure air.
"This is something like! When you get your land under ditch, you'll
have a paradise."

"Oh, but you do not understand," she replied. "We want you to find out
and tell us that Dry Mesa _cannot_ be watered. Irrigation would break
up Daddy's range and put him out of business. It is just what we do
not want."

"I see," said Blake, with instant comprehension of the situation.

"I know it cannot be done. But there are so many reclamation projects,
and Daddy has read and read about them until he almost has a bee in
his bonnet."

"Yet you sent for me--an engineer."

"Because I knew that when _you_ told him our mesa couldn't be watered,
he would stop worrying. You know, you are quite a hero with us. We
have read all about your wonderful work."

Blake's pale eyes twinkled. "So I'm a hero. Will you dynamite my
pedestal if I figure out a way to water your range?"

She flashed him a troubled glance, but rallied for a quick rejoinder:
"Even you can't pump the water out of Deep Cañon, and Plum Creek is
only a trickle most of the year."

"I see you want me to make my report as dry as I can write it," he
bantered.

"No," she replied, suddenly serious. "We wish the exact truth, though
we hope you'll find it dry."

"Then you are to blame if the matter does not figure out your way," he
warned her. "You've given me a problem. If there is any possible way
for me to irrigate your mesa, I am bound to try my best to work it
out. Hadn't you better head me off before I start in? At present I
haven't the remotest desire to do this except to comply with your
wishes."

"It's as I told Daddy," she said. "If there really is a way, the
sooner we know it the better. It is the uncertainty that is bothering
Daddy. If your report is for us, all well and good; if against us, he
will stand up and fight and forget about worrying."

"Fight?" asked Blake.

"Fight the project, fight against the formation of any irrigation
district. He owns five sections. The reservoir might have to be on his
patented land. He'd fight fair and square and hard--to the last
ditch!"

"Isn't that a Dutchman's saying?" asked Blake humorously.

The girl's tense face relaxed, and she burst out in a ringing laugh.
She shifted the conversation to less serious subjects, and they
cantered along together, laughing and chatting like old friends.

By this time Ashton and Mrs. Blake had gradually come to the same
stage of pleasant comradeship. Ashton had started the drive in a
sullen mood, his manner half resentful and wholly embarrassed. Of this
the lady was tactfully oblivious. Avoiding all allusion to the
catastrophe that had befallen him, she told him the latest news of the
mutual friends and acquaintances in whom ordinarily he would have been
expected to be interested.

She even spoke casually of his father. His face contracted with pain,
but he showed no bitterness against the parent who had disowned him.
After that her graciousness towards him redoubled. With Isobel for
excuse, she gradually shifted the conversation to ranch life and his
employment as cowboy. In many subtle ways she conveyed to him her
admiration of the manner in which he had turned over a new leaf and
was making a clean fresh start in life.

After delicately intimating her feelings, she at once turned to less
personal topics. The last traces of his embarrassment and moodiness
left him, and he began to talk quite at his ease, though with a
certain reserve that she attributed to the vast change in his
fortunes. In return for her kindness, he repaid her by showing a real
interest in Thomas Herbert Vincent Leslie Blake.

That young man spent his time chuckling and crowing and kicking, until
overcome with sleep. Two hours out from Stockchute he awoke and
vociferously demanded nourishment. Promptly the party was brought to a
halt. They were among the piñons on one of the hillsides. While the
baby took his dinner, Isobel laid out the lunch and the men burned
incense in the guise of a pair of Havana cigars produced by Blake.

The lunch might have been put up in the kitchen of a first-class
metropolitan hotel. The fruit was the most luscious that money could
buy; the sandwiches and cake would have tempted a sated epicure; the
mineral water had come out of an ice chest so nearly frozen that it
was still refreshingly cool. But--what was rather odd for a lunch
packed in a private car--it included no wine or whiskey or liqueur.
Blake caught Ashton's glance, and smiled.

"You see I'm still on the waterwagon," he remarked. "I've got a
permanent seat. There have been times when it looked as if I might be
jolted off, but--"

"But there's never been the slightest chance of that!" put in his
wife. She looked at Isobel, her soft eyes shining with love and pride.
"Once he gets a grip on anything, he never lets go."

"Oh, I can believe that!" exclaimed the girl with an enthusiasm that
brought a shadow into the mobile face of Ashton.

"A man can't help holding on when he has something to hold on for,"
said Blake, gazing at his wife and baby.

"That's true!" agreed Ashton, his eyes on the dimpled face of Isobel.

Refreshed by the delicious meal, the party prepared to start on. But
they did not travel as before. While Ashton was considerately washing
out the dusty nostrils of the horses with water from his canteen,
Isobel decided to drive with Mrs. Blake. Declaring that it would be
like old times to sit a cowboy saddle, the big engineer lengthened the
girl's stirrup leathers and swung on to the pony. This left Rocket to
his owner.

At first Ashton seemed inclined to be stiff with his new road-mate.
But as they jogged along, side by side, over the hills and across the
sagebrush flats, Blake restricted his talk to impersonal topics and
spared his companion from any allusion to their past difficulties.
Throughout the ride, however, the two men maintained a certain reserve
towards each other, and at no time approached the cordial intimacy
that developed between the girl and Mrs. Blake before the end of their
first mile together.

After telling merrily about her dual life as summer cowgirl and winter
society maiden, Isobel drifted around, by seemingly casual association
of ideas, to the troublesome question of irrigation on Dry Mesa, and
from that to Blake and his work as an engineer.

"I do so hope Mr. Blake finds that there is no project practicable,"
she went on. "He has warned me that if there seems to be any chance to
work out an irrigation scheme on our mesa he is bound to try to do
it."

"And he would do it," added Mrs. Blake with quiet confidence.

"Then I hope and pray he will find there is no chance, because Daddy
would have to oppose him. That would be such a pity! He and I have
read so much about Mr. Blake's work that we have come to regard him as
our--as one of our heroes."

Mrs. Blake smiled. It was very apparent, despite the quietness and
repression of her high-bred manner, that she was very much in love
with her husband.

The girl continued in a meekly deferential tone: "So you will not mind
my worshiping him. He is a hero, a real hero! Isn't he?"

The words were spoken with an earnestness and sincerity that won Mrs.
Blake to a like candor. "You are quite right," she said. "Lafayette
may have told you how Mr. Blake and I were wrecked on the most savage
coast of Africa. He saved me from wild beasts and tropical storms,
from fever and snakes,--from death in a dozen horrible forms. Then,
when he had saved me--and won me, he gave me up until he could prove
to himself that he was worthy of me."

"He did?" cried the girl. "But of course!--of course!"

"Yet that was nothing to the next proof of his strength and manhood,"
went on the proud wife. "He destroyed a monster more frightful than
any lion or tropical snake--he overcame the curse of drink that had
come down to him from--one of his parents."

"From--from his--" whispered the girl, her averted face white and
drawn with pain.

Mrs. Blake had bent over to kiss the forehead of her sleeping baby and
did not see. "If only all parents knew what terrible misfortunes,
what tortures, their transgressions are apt to bring upon their
innocent children!" she murmured.

"He told me that he won his way up out of the--the slums," said
Isobel. "It must be some men fail to do that because they have
relatives to drag them down--their families."

"It seems hard to say it, yet I do not know but that you are right, my
dear," agreed Mrs. Blake. "Strong men, if unhampered, have a chance to
fight their way up out of the social pit. But women and girls, even
when they escape the--the worst down there, can hardly hope ever to
attain--And of course those that fall!--Our dual code of morality is
hideously unjust to our sex, yet it still is the code under which we
live."

The girl drew in a deep, sighing breath. Her eyes were dark with
anguish. Yet she forced a gay little laugh. "Aren't we solemn
sociologists! All we are concerned with is that _he_ has won his way
up, and there's no one ever to drag him down or disgrace him; and--and
you won't be jealous if I set him up on a pedestal and bring incense
to him on my bended knees."

"Only you must give Thomas Herbert his share at the same time,"
stipulated the mother.

The girl burst into prolonged and rather shrill laughter that passed
the bounds of good breeding. Her emotion was so unrestrained that when
she looked about at her surprised companion her face was flushed and
her eyes were swimming with tears.

"Please, oh, do please forgive me!" she begged with a humility as
immoderate as had been her laughter. "I--I can't tell you why, but--"

"Say no more, my dear," soothed Mrs. Blake. "You are merely a bit
hysterical. Perhaps the excitement of our coming, after your months of
lonely ranch life--"

"You're so good!" sighed the girl. "Yes, it was due to--your coming.
But now the worst is over. I'll not shock you again with any more such
outbursts."

She smiled, and began to talk of other things, with somewhat unsteady
but persistent gayety.



CHAPTER XIV

A DESCENT


When the party arrived at the ranch, the girl hostess took Mrs. Blake
to rest in the clean, simply furnished room provided for the visitors.
Blake, after carrying in their trunk single-handed, went to look
around at the ranch buildings in company with Ashton.

On returning to the house, the two found Knowles and Gowan in the
parlor with the ladies. Isobel had already introduced them to Mrs.
Blake and also to her son. That young man was sprawled, face up, in
the cowman's big hands, crowing and valiantly clutching at his bristly
mustache.

Gowan sat across from him, perfectly at ease in the presence of the
city lady. But, with his characteristic lack of humor, he was unmoved
by the laughable spectacle presented by his employer and the baby, and
his manner was both reserved and watchful.

At sight of Blake, Isobel called to her father in feigned alarm: "Look
out, Daddy! Better stop hazing that yearling. Here comes his sire."

Knowles gave the baby back to its half-fearful mother, and rose to
greet his guest with hospitable warmth: "Howdy, Mr. Blake! I'm
downright glad to meet you. Hope you've found things comfortable and
homelike."

"Too much so," asserted Blake, his eyes twinkling. "We came out
expecting to rough-it."

"Well, your lady won't know the difference," remarked Knowles.

"You're quite mistaken, Daddy, really," interposed his daughter. "She
and Mr. Blake were wrecked in Africa and lived on roast leopards.
We'll have to feed them on mountain lions and bobcats."

"If you mean that, Miss Chuckie," put in Gowan, "I can get a bobcat in
time for dinner tomorrow."

The girl led the general outburst of laughter over this serious
proposal. "Oh! oh! Kid! You'll be the death of me!--Yet I sent you a
joke-book last Christmas!"

"Couldn't see anything funny in it," replied the puncher. "I haven't
lost it, though. It came from you."

To cover the girl's blush at this blunt disclosure of sentiment, Mrs.
Blake somewhat formally introduced her husband to the puncher. He
shook Blake's hand with like formality and politeness. But as their
glances met, his gray eyes shone with the same cold suspicion with
which he had regarded Ashton at their first meeting. Before that look
the engineer's friendly eyes hardened to disks of burnished steel,
and his big fist released its cordial grip of the other's small, bony
hand. He gave back hostility for hostility with the readiness of a
born fighter. Gowan was the first to look away.

The incident passed so swiftly that only Knowles observed the outflash
of enmity. His words indicated that he had anticipated the puncher's
attitude. He addressed Blake seriously: "Kid has been with us ever
since he was a youngster and has always made my interests his own.
Chuckie has been telling us what you said about putting through any
project you once started."

Blake nodded. "Yes. That is why I suggested to Miss Knowles that she
call off the agreement under which I came on this visit. We shall
gladly pay board, and I'll merely knock around; or, if you prefer,
we'll leave you and go back tomorrow morning."

"No, Daddy, no! we can't allow our guests to leave, when they've only
just come!" protested Isobel.

"As for any talk about board," added her father, "you ought to know
better, Mr. Blake."

"My apology!" admitted Blake. "I've been living in the East."

"That explains," agreed the cowman. "Even as far east as Denver--I've
got a sister there; lives up beyond the Capitol. But I've talked with
other men there from over this way. They all agree you might as well
look for good cow pasture behind a sheep drive as for hospitality in a
city. Sometimes you can get what you want, and all times you're sure
to get a lot of attention you don't want--if you have money to
spend."

"That's true. But about my going ahead here?" inquired Blake. "Say the
word, and I put irrigation on the shelf throughout our visit."

Knowles shook his head thoughtfully. "No, I reckon Chuckie is right.
We'd best learn just how we stand."

"What if I work out a practical project? There's any amount of good
land on your mesa. The lay of it and the altitude ought to make it
ideal for fruit. If I see that the proposition is feasible, I shall be
bound to put water on all of your range that I can. I am an
engineer,--I cannot let good land and water go to waste."

"The land isn't going to waste," replied Knowles. "It's the best
cattle range in this section, and it's being used for the purpose
Nature intended. As for the water, Chuckie has figured out there isn't
more than three thousand acre feet of flood waters that can be
impounded off the watershed above us. That wouldn't pay for building
any kind of a dam."

"And the devil himself couldn't pump the water up out of Deep Cañon,"
put in Gowan.

"The devil hasn't much use for science," said Blake. "It has almost
put him out of business. So he is not apt to be well up on modern
engineering."

"Then you think you can do what the devil can't?" demanded Knowles.

"I can try. Unless you wish to call off the deal, I shall ride around
tomorrow and look over the country. Maybe that will be sufficient to
show me there is no chance for irrigation, or, on the contrary, I may
have to run levels and do some figuring."

"Then perhaps you will know by tomorrow night?" exclaimed Isobel.

"Yes."

"Well, that's something," said the cowman. "I'll take you out first
thing in the morning.--Lafe, show Mr. Blake the wash bench. There goes
the first gong."

When, a little later, all came together again at the supper table,
nothing more was said about the vexed question of irrigation. Isobel
had made no changes in her table arrangements other than to have a
plate laid for Mrs. Blake beside her father's and another for Blake
beside her own.

The employés were too accustomed to Miss Chuckie to be embarrassed by
the presence of another lady, and Blake put himself on familiar terms
with them by his first remarks. If his wealthy high-bred wife was
surprised to find herself seated at the same table with common
workmen, she betrayed no resentment over the situation. Her perfect
breeding was shown in the unaffected simplicity of her manner, which
was precisely the same to the roughest man present as to her hostess.

Even had there been any indications of uncongeniality, they must have
been overcome by the presence of Thomas Herbert Vincent Leslie Blake.
The most unkempt, hard-bitten bachelor present gazed upon the majesty
of babyhood with awed reverence and delight. The silent Jap
interrupted his serving to fetch a queer rattle of ivory balls carved
out one within the other. This he cleansed with soap, peroxide and hot
water, in the presence of the honorable lady mother, before presenting
it to her infant with much smiling and hissing insuckings of breath.

After supper all retired at an early hour, out of regard for the
weariness of Mrs. Blake.

When she reappeared, late the next morning, she learned that Knowles,
Gowan and her husband had ridden off together hours before. But Isobel
and Ashton seemed to have nothing else to do than to entertain the
mother and child. Mrs. Blake donned one of the girl's divided skirts
and took her first lesson in riding astride. There was no sidesaddle
at the ranch, but there was a surefooted old cow pony too wise and
spiritless for tricks, and therefore safe even for a less experienced
horsewoman than was Mrs. Blake.

Knowles and Gowan and the engineer returned so late that they found
all the others at the supper table. Blake's freshly sunburnt face was
cheerful. Gowan's expression was as noncommittal as usual. But the
cowman's forehead was furrowed with unrelieved suspense.

"Oh, Mr. Blake!" exclaimed Isobel. "Don't tell us your report is
unfavorable."

"Afraid I can't say, as yet," he replied. "We've covered the ground
pretty thoroughly for miles along High Mesa and Deep Cañon. If the
annual precipitation here is what I estimate it from what your father
tells me, it would be possible to put in a drainage and reservoir
system that would store four thousand acre feet. Except as an
auxiliary system, however, it would cost too much to be practicable.
As for Deep Cañon--" He turned to his wife. "Jenny, whatever else
happens, I must get you up to see that cañon. It's almost as grand and
in some ways even more wonderful than the Cañon of the Colorado."

"Then I must see it, by all means," responded Mrs. Blake. "I shall
soon be able to ride up to it, Isobel assures me."

"Within a few days," said the girl. "But, Mr. Blake, pardon me--How
about the water in the cañon? You surely see no way to lift it out
over the top of High Mesa?"

"I'm sorry, but I can't even guess what can be done until I have run a
line of levels and found the depth of the cañon. I tried to estimate
it by dropping in rocks and timing them, but we couldn't see them
strike bottom."

"A line of levels? Will it take you long?"

"Maybe a week; possibly more. If I had a transit as well as my level,
it would save time. However, I can make out with the chain and compass
I brought."

"Mr. Blake is to start running his levels in the morning," said
Knowles. "Lafe, I'd like you to help him as his rodman, if you have no
objections. As you've been an engineer, you can help him along faster
than Kid.--You said one would do, Mr. Blake; but if you need more,
take all the men you want. The sooner this thing is settled, the
better it will suit me."

"The sooner the better, Daddy!" agreed Isobel, "that is, if our guests
promise to not hurry away."

"We shall stay at least a month, if you wish us to," said Mrs. Blake.

"Two months would be too short!--And the sooner we are over with this
uncertainty--Lafe, you'll do your utmost to help Mr. Blake, won't
you?"

"Yes, indeed; anything I can," eagerly responded Ashton.

Gowan's face darkened at sight of the smile with which the girl
rewarded the tenderfoot. Yet instead of sulking, he joined in the
evening's entertainment of the guests with a zeal that agreeably
surprised everyone. His guitar playing won genuine praise from the
Blakes, though both were sophisticated and critical music lovers.

Somewhat earlier than usual he rose to go, with the excuse that he
wished to consult Knowles about some business with the owner of the
adjoining range. The cowman went out with him, and did not return. An
hour later Ashton took reluctant leave of Isobel, and started for the
bunkhouse. Half way across he was met by his employer, who stopped
before him.

"Everybody turning in, Lafe?"

"Not at my suggestion, though," replied Ashton.

"Reckon not. Mr. Blake and his lady are old friends of yours, I take
it."

"Mrs. Blake is," stated Ashton, with a touch of his former arrogance.
"We made mud-pies together, in a hundred thousand dollar dooryard."

"Humph!" grunted Knowles. "And her husband?"

The darkness hid Ashton's face, but his voice betrayed the sudden
upwelling of his bitterness: "I never heard of him until he--until a
little over three years ago. I wish to Heaven he hadn't taken part in
that bridge contest!"

"How's that?" asked Knowles in a casual tone.

"Nothing--nothing!" Ashton hastened to disclaim. "You haven't been
talking with Miss Chuckie about me, have you, Mr. Knowles?"

"No. Why?"

"It was only that I explained to her how I came to be ruined--to lose
my fortune. You see, the circumstances are such that I cannot very
well say anything against Blake; yet he was the cause--it was owing to
something he did that I lost all--everything--millions! Curse him!"

"You've appeared friendly enough towards him," remarked Knowles.

"Yes, I--I promised Miss Chuckie to try to forget the past. But when I
think of what I lost, all because of him--"

"So-o!" considered the cowman. "Maybe there's more in what Kid says
than I thought. He's been cross-questioning Blake all day. You know
how little Kid is given to gab. But from the time we started off he
kept after Blake like he was cutting out steers at the round-up."

"Blake isn't the kind you could get to tell anything against himself,"
asserted Ashton.

"Well, that may be. All his talk today struck me as being straightforward
and outspoken. But Kid has been drawing inferences. He keeps hammering
at it that Blake must be in thick with his father-in-law, and that all
millionaires round-up their money in ways that would make a rustler go
off and shoot himself."

"Business is business," replied Ashton with all his old cynicism.
"I'll not say that H. V. Leslie is crooked, but I never knew of his
coming out of a deal second best."

"Well, at any rate, it's white of Blake to tell us beforehand what he
intends to do if he sees a chance of a practical project."

"Has he told you everything?" scoffed Ashton.

"How about his offer to drop the whole matter and not go into it at
all?" rejoined Knowles.

Ashton hesitated to reply. For one thing, he was momentarily
nonplused, and, for another, the Blakes had treated him as a
gentleman. But a fresh upwelling of bitterness dulled his conscience
and sharpened his wits.

"It may have been to throw you off your guard," he said. "Blake is
deep, and he has had old Leslie to coach him ever since he married
Genevieve. He could have laid his plans,--looked over the ground, and
found out just what are your rights here,--all without your suspecting
him."

"Well, I'm not so sure--"

"Have you told him what lands you have deeds to?"

"No, but if he knows as much about the West as I figure he does, he
can guess it. Fence every swallow of get-at-able water to be found on
my range this time of year, and you won't have to dig a posthole off
of land I hold in fee simple. Plum Creek sinks just below where Dry
Fork junctions."

"But you can't have _all_ the water?" exclaimed Ashton incredulously.

"Yes, every drop to be found outside Deep Cañon this time of year.
There's my seven and a half mile string of quarter-sections blanketing
Plum Creek from the springs to down below Dry Fork, and five
quarter-sections covering all the waterholes. That makes up five
sections. A bunch of tenderfeet came in here, years ago, and preëmpted
all the quarter-sections with water on them. Got their patents from
the government. Then the Utes stampeded them clean out of the country,
and I bought up their titles at a fair figure."

"And you own even that splendid pool up where I had my camp?"

"Everything wet on this range that a cow or hawss can get to, this
time of year."

Ashton considered, and advised craftily: "Don't tell him this. Does
Miss Chuckie know it?"

"She knows I have five sections, and that most of it is on Plum Creek.
I don't think anything has ever been said to her about the waterholes.
But why not tell Blake?"

"Don't you see? Even if he finds a way to get at the water in Deep
Cañon, he will first have to bore his tunnel. He and his construction
gang must have water to drink and for their engines while they are
carrying out his plans. You can lie low, and, when the right time
comes, get out an injunction against their trespassing on your land."

"Say, that's not a bad idea. The best I could figure was that they
might need one of my waterholes for a reservoir site. But why not call
him when he first takes a hand?" asked Knowles.

"No, you should not show your cards until you have to," replied
Ashton. "With all Leslie's money against you, it might be hard to get
your injunction if they knew of your plans. But if you wait until they
have their men, machinery and materials on the ground, you will have
them where they must buy you out at your own terms."

"By--James!" commented Knowles. "Talk about business sharps!"

"I was in Leslie's office for a time," explained Ashton. "Your
interests are Miss Chuckie's interests. I'm for her--first, last, and
all the time."

"Um-m-m. Then I guess I can count on you as sure as on Gowan."

"You can. I am going to try my best to win your daughter, Mr. Knowles.
She's a lady--the loveliest girl I ever met."

"No doubt about that. What's more, she's got grit and brains. That's
why I tell you now, as I've told Kid, it's for her to decide on the
man she's going to make happy. If he's square and white, that's all I
ask."

"About my helping Blake with his levels," Ashton rather hastily
changed the subject. "I am in your employ--and so is he, for that
matter. Don't you think I have a right to keep you posted on all his
plans?"

"Well--yes. But he as much as says he will tell them himself."

"Perhaps he will, and perhaps he won't, Mr. Knowles. I've told you
what Leslie is like; and Blake is his son-in-law."

"Well, I'm not so sure. You and Kid, between you, have shaken my
judgment of the man. It can't do any harm to watch him, and I'll be
obliged to you for doing it. If it comes to a fight against him and
the millions of backing he has, I want a fair deal and--But, Lord!
what if we're making all this fuss over nothing? It doesn't stand to
reason that there's any way to get the water out of Deep Cañon."

"Wait a week or so," cautioned Ashton. "In my opinion, Blake already
sees a possibility."



CHAPTER XV

LEVELS AND SLANTS


At sunrise the next morning Blake screwed his level on its tripod and
set up the instrument about a hundred yards away from the ranch house.
Ashton held the level rod for him on a spike driven into the foot of
the nearest post of the front porch. Blake called the spike a
bench-mark. For convenience of determining the relative heights of the
points along his lines of levels, he designated this first "bench" in
his fieldbook as "elevation 1,000."

From the porch he ran the line of level "readings" up the slope to the
top of the divide between Plum Creek and Dry Fork and from there
towards the waterhole on Dry Fork. At noon Isobel and Mrs. Blake drove
out to them in the buckboard, bringing a hot meal in an improvised
fireless-cooker.

"And we came West to rough-it!" groaned Blake, his eyes twinkling.

"You can camp at the waterhole where Lafe did, and I'll send Kid out
for that bobcat," suggested the girl. "You could roast him, hair and
all."

"What! roast Gowan?" protested Blake. "Let me tell you, Miss
Chuckie--you and my wife and Ashton may like him that much, but I
don't!"

"You need not worry, Mr. Tenderfoot," the girl flashed back at him.
"Whenever it comes to a hot time, Kid always gets in the first fire,
without waiting to be told."

"Don't I know it?" exclaimed Ashton. "Maybe you haven't noticed this
hole in my hat, Mrs. Blake. He put a bullet through it."

"But it's right over your temple, Lafayette!" replied Mrs. Blake.

"Lafe was lifting his some-berero to me, and Kid did it to haze
him--only a joke, you know," explained Isobel. "Of course Lafe was in
no danger. It was different, though, when somebody--we think it was
his thieving guide--took several rifle shots at him. Tell them about
it, Lafe."

Ashton gave an account of the murderous attack, more than once
checking himself in a natural tendency to embellish the exciting
details.

"Oh! What if the man should come back and shoot at us?" shuddered Mrs.
Blake, drawing her baby close in her arms.

"No fear of that," asserted Isobel. "Kid found that he had fled
towards the railroad. That proves it must have been the guide. He
would never dare come back after such a crime."

"If he should, I always carry my rifle, as you see," remarked Ashton;
adding, with a touch of bravado, "I made him run once, and I would
again."

"I'm glad Miss Chuckie is sure he will not come back," said Blake. "I
don't fancy anyone shooting at me that way."

"Timid Mr. Blake!" teased the girl. "Genevieve has been telling me how
you faced a lion with only a bow and arrow."

"Had to," said Blake. "He'd have jumped on me if I had turned or
backed off.--Speaking about camping at that waterhole, I believe we'll
do it, Ashton, if it's the same thing to you. It would save the time
that would be lost coming and going to the ranch."

"Save time?" repeated Isobel. "Then of course we'll bring out a tent
and camp kit for you tomorrow. Genevieve and I can ride or drive up to
the waterhole each day, to picnic with you."

"It will be delightful," agreed Mrs. Blake.

"You ride on ahead and wait for us in the shade," said her husband.
"We'll knock off for the day when we reach that dolerite dike above
the waterhole.--If you are ready, Ashton, we'll peg along."

He started off to set up his level as briskly as at dawn, though the
midday sun was so hot that he had to shade the instrument with his
handkerchief to keep the air-bubble from outstretching its scale. His
wife and the girl drove on up Dry Fork to the waterhole.

Mrs. Blake was outstretched on her back, fast asleep, and Isobel was
playing with the baby under the adjoining tree, when at last the
surveyors came up on the other side of the creek and ended their day's
run with the establishment of a bench-mark on the top of the dike
above the pool. Blake seemed as fresh as in the morning. He took a
moderate drink of water dipped up in the brim of his hat, and without
wakening his wife, sat down beside her to "figure up" his fieldbook.

Ashton had come down to the pool panting from heat and exertion. It
was the first time that he had walked more than half a mile since
coming to the ranch, for he had immediately fallen into the cowboy
practice of saddling a horse to go even short distances. He had his
reward for his work when, having soused his hot head in the pool and
drunk his fill, he came up to rest in the shade of Isobel's tree. Very
considerately the baby fell asleep. To avoid disturbing him and his
mother, the young couple talked in low tones and half whispers very
conducive to intimacy.

Ashton did his utmost to improve his opportunity. Without openly
speaking his love, he allowed it to appear in his every look and
intonation. The girl met the attack with banter and raillery and
adroit shiftings of the conversation whenever his ardent inferences
became too obvious. Yet her evasion and her teasing could not always
mask her maidenly pleasure over his adoration of her loveliness, and
an occasional blush betrayed to him that his wooing was not
altogether unwelcome.

He was in the seventh heaven when Mrs. Blake awoke from her
health-giving sleep and her husband closed his fieldbook. The girl
promptly dashed her suitor back to earth by dropping him for the
engineer.

"Mr. Blake! You can't have figured it out already?" she exclaimed.
"What do you find?"

"Only an 'if,' Miss Chuckie," he answered. "If water can be stored or
brought by ditch to this elevation, practically all Dry Mesa can be
irrigated. Our bench-mark there on the dike is more than two hundred
feet above that spike we drove into your porch post."

"Is that all you've found out today?"

"All for today," said Blake. "I could have left this line of levels
until later, but I thought I might as well get through with them."

"You would not have run them if you had thought they would be
useless," she stated, perceiving the point with intuitive acuteness.

"I like to clean up my work as I go along," he replied. "If you wish
to know, I have thought of a possible way to get water enough for the
whole mesa. It depends on two 'ifs.' I shall be certain as to one of
them within the next two days. The other is the question of the depth
of Deep Cañon. If I had a transit, I could determine that by a
vertical angle,--triangulation. As it is, I probably shall have to go
down to the bottom."

"Go down to the bottom of Deep Cañon?" cried the girl.

"Yes," he answered in a matter-of-course tone. "A big ravine runs
clear down to the bottom, up beyond where your father said you first
met Ashton. I think it is possible to get down that gulch.--Suppose we
hitch up? We'll make the ranch just about supper-time."

Ashton hastened to bring in the picketed horses. When they were
harnessed Isobel fetched the sleeping baby and handed him to his
mother; but she did not take the seat beside her.

"You drive, Lafe," she ordered. "I'm going to ride behind with Mr.
Blake. It's such fun bouncing."

All protested in vain against this odd whim. The girl plumped herself
in on the rear end of the buckboard and dangled her slender feet with
the gleefulness of a child.

"Mr. Blake will catch me if I go to jolt off," she declared.

The engineer nodded with responsive gayety and seated himself beside
her. As the buckboard rattled away over the rough sod, they made as
merry over their jolts and bounces as a pair of school-children on a
hayrack party.

Mrs. Blake sought to divert Ashton from his disappointment, but he
had ears only for the laughing, chatting couple behind him. The fact
that Blake was a married man did not prevent the lover from giving way
to jealous envy. Chancing to look around as he warned the hilarious
pair of a gully, he saw the girl grasp Blake's shoulder. Natural as
was the act, his envy flared up in hot resentment. Except on their
drive to Stockchute, she had always avoided even touching his hand
with her finger tips; yet now she clung to the engineer with a grasp
as familiar as that of an affectionate child. Nor did she release her
clasp until they were some yards beyond the gully.

Mrs. Blake had seen not only the expression that betrayed Ashton's
anger but also the action that caused it. She raised her fine
eyebrows; but meeting Ashton's significant glance, she sought to pass
over the incident with a smile. He refused to respond. All during the
remainder of the drive he sat in sullen silence. Genevieve bent over
her baby. Behind them the unconscious couple continued in their
mirthful enjoyment of each other and the ride.

When the party reached the ranch, the girl must have perceived
Ashton's moroseness had she not first caught sight of her father. He
was standing outside the front porch, his eyes fixed upon the corner
post in a perplexed stare.

"Why, Daddy," she called, "what is it? You look as you do when playing
chess with Kid."

"Afraid it's something that'll annoy Mr. Blake," replied the cowman.

"What is it?" asked Blake, who was handing his wife from the
buckboard.

As the engineer faced Knowles, Gowan sauntered around the far corner
of the house. At sight of the ladies he paused to adjust his
neckerchief.

"Can't understand it, Mr. Blake," said the cowman. "Somebody has
pulled out that spike you drove in here this morning."

"Pulled the spike?" repeated Gowan, coming forward to stare at the
post. "That shore is a joke. The Jap's building a new henhouse. Must
be short of nails."

"That's so," said Knowles. "I forgot to order them for him. I'm mighty
sorry, Mr. Blake. But of course the little brown cuss didn't know what
he was meddling with."

"Jumping Jehosaphat!" ejaculated Gowan. "That shore is mighty hard
luck! I reckon pulling that spike turns your line of levels adrift
like knocking out the picket-pin of an uneasy hawss."

Blake burst into a hearty laugh. "That's a fine metaphor, Mr. Gowan.
But it does not happen to fit the case. It would not matter if the
spike-hole had been pulled out and the post along with it, so far as
concerns this line of levels."

"It wouldn't?" muttered Gowan, his lean jaw dropping slack. He
glowered as if chagrined at the engineer's laughter at his mistake.

Without heeding the puncher's look, Blake began to tell Knowles the
result of his day's work. While he was speaking, they went into the
house after his wife and the girl, leaving Gowan and Ashton alone.
Equally sullen and resentful, the rivals exchanged stares of open
hostility. Ashton pointed a derisive finger at the spike-hole in the
post.

"'Hole ... and the post along with it!'" he repeated Blake's words.
"On bridge work it might have caused some trouble. But a preliminary
line of levels--_Mon Dieu_! A Jap should have known better--or even a
yap!" With a supercilious shrug, he swung back into the buckboard and
drove up to the corral.

Gowan's right hand had dropped to his hip. Slowly it came up and
joined the other hand in rolling a thick Mexican cigarette. But the
puncher did not light his "smoke." He looked at the spike-hole in the
post, scowled, and went back around the house.



CHAPTER XVI

METAL AND METTLE


At dawn Blake and Ashton drove up to the waterhole on Dry Fork with
their camp equipment. There they left the outfit in the buckboard and
proceeded with the line of levels on up the creek bed into the gorge
from which it issued.

For more than a mile they carried the levels over the bowlders of the
gradually sloping bottom of that stupendous gash in the mountain side.
So far the work was fairly easy. At last, however, they came to the
place where the bed of the gulch suddenly tilted upward at a sharp
angle and climbed the tremendous heights to the top of High Mesa in
sheer ascents and cliff-like ledges. Blake established a bench-mark at
the foot of the acclivity, and came forward beside Ashton to peer up
the Titanic chute between the dizzy precipices. From where they stood
to the head of the gulch was fully four thousand feet.

"What do you think of it?" asked the engineer.

"I think this is where your line ends," answered Ashton, and he rolled
a cigarette. He had been anything but agreeable since their start from
the ranch.

"We of course can't go up with the level and rod," said Blake, smiling
at the absurdity of the suggestion. "Still, we might possibly chain it
to the top."

Ashton shrugged. "I fail to see the need of risking my neck to climb
this goat stairway."

"Very well," agreed Blake, ignoring his companion's ill humor. "Kindly
take back the level and get out the chain."

Ashton started off without replying. Blake looked at the young man's
back with a regretful, half-puzzled expression. But he quickly
returned to the business in hand. He laid the level rod on a rock and
inclined it at the same steep pitch as the uptilt of the gorge bottom.
Over the lower end of this he held a plumb bob, and took the angle
between the perpendicular line of the bob-string and the inclined line
of the rod with a small protractor that he carried in his notebook.
The angle measured over fifty degrees from the horizontal.

Having thus determined the angle of inclination, the engineer picked a
likely line of ascent and started to climb the gulch chute. He went up
in rapid rushes, with the ease and surefootedness of a coolheaded,
steel-muscled climber. He stopped frequently, not because of weariness
or of lack of breath, but to test the structure and hardness of the
rocks with a small magnifying glass and the butt of his pocket knife.

At last, nearly a thousand feet up, his ascent was stopped by a sheer
hundred-foot cliff. He had seen it beetling above him and knew
beforehand that he could not hope to scale such a precipice; yet he
clambered up to it, still examining the rock with minute care. As he
walked across the waterworn shelf at the foot of the sheer cliff, his
eye was caught by a wide seam of quartz in the side wall of the
gulch.

Going on over to the vein, he looked at it in several places through
his magnifying glass. Everywhere little yellow specks showed in the
semi-translucent quartz. He drew back across the gorge to examine the
trend of the vein. It ran far outward and upward, and in no place was
it narrower than where it disappeared under the bed of the gorge.

His lips pursed in a prolonged, soundless whistle. But he did not
linger. Immediately after he had estimated the visible length and dip
of the seam, he began his descent. Arriving at the foot without
accident, he picked up the level rod and swung away down the gulch.

He saw nothing of Ashton until he had come all the distance down
across the valley to the dike above the pool. His assistant was in the
grove below, assiduously helping Miss Knowles to erect a tent that the
girl had improvised from a tarpaulin. Genevieve and Thomas Herbert
were interesting themselves in the contents of the kit-box. The two
ladies had ridden up to the camp on horseback, Isobel carrying the
baby.

When Blake came striding down to them, the girl left Ashton and ran
to meet him, her eyes beaming with affectionate welcome.

"What has kept you so long?" she called. "Lafe says the gulch is
absolutely unclimbable. I could have told you so, beforehand."

"You are right. I tried it, but had to quit," replied Blake, engulfing
her outstretched hand in his big palm.

When he would have released her, she caught his fingers and held fast,
so that they came down to his wife hand in hand. Oblivious of Ashton's
frown, the girl dimpled at Mrs. Blake.

"Here he is, Genevieve," she said. "We have him corralled for the rest
of the morning."

"Sorry," replied Blake, stooping to pick up his chuckling son. "We
can't knock off now."

"But if you cannot continue your levels?" asked his wife. "From what
Lafayette told us, we thought you would not start in again until after
lunch."

"No more levels until tomorrow," said Blake. "But I must settle one of
my big 'ifs' by night. To do it, Ashton and I will have to go up on
High Mesa and measure a line. There's still two hours till noon. We'll
borrow your saddle ponies, Miss Chuckie, and start at once, if Jenny
will put us up a bite of lunch."

"Immediately, Tom," assented Mrs. Blake, delighted at the opportunity
to serve her big husband.

"When shall we take Genevieve to see the cañon?" asked the girl. "I am
sure she can ride up safely on old Buck."

"We have only the two saddle horses today," replied Blake. "If our
measurement settles that 'if' one way, I shall start a line of levels
up the mountain tomorrow morning, if the other way, any irrigation
project is out of the question, and we shall go up to the cañon merely
as a sightseeing party."

"Ah!" sighed the girl. "'If!' 'if'--I do so hope it turns out to be
the last one!"

Blake looked at her with a quizzical smile. "Perhaps you would not,
Miss Chuckie, if you could see all the results of a successful water
system."

"You mean, turning our range into farms for hundreds of irrigationists,"
she replied. "I suppose I am selfish, but I am thinking of what it
would mean to Daddy. Just consider how it will affect us. For years
this land has been our own for miles and miles!"

"Well, we shall see," said Blake, his eyes twinkling.

"Yes, indeed!" she exclaimed. "Lafe, if you'll help me saddle up and
help Mr. Blake rush up to do that measuring, I'll--I'll be ever so
grateful!"

Though all the more resentful at Blake over having to leave her
company, Ashton eagerly sprang forward to help the girl saddle the
ponies. When they were ready, she filled his canteen for him and took
a sip from it "for luck." Genevieve had packed an ample lunch in a
gamebag, along with her husband's linked steel-wire surveyor's chain.

Ten minutes after Blake's arrival, he handed the baby to its mother
and swung into the saddle. Ashton had already mounted, fired by a kind
glance from the girl's forget-me-not eyes. In his zeal, he led the way
at a gallop around the craggy hill and across the intervening valley
to the escarpment of High Mesa. Had not Blake checked him, he would
have forced the pace on up the mountain side.

"Hold on," called the engineer. "We want to make haste slowly. That
buckskin you're on isn't so young as he has been, and my pony has to
lug around two hundred pounds. We'll get back sooner by being
moderate. Besides you don't wish to knock up old Buck. He is about the
only one of these jumpy cow ponies that is safe for Jenny."

"That's so," admitted Ashton. "Suppose you set the pace."

He stopped to let Blake pass him, and trailed behind up the mountain
side. He had headed into a draw. The engineer at once turned and began
zigzagging up the steep side of the ridge that thrust out into the
valley between the draw and the gulch of Dry Fork. At the stiffest
places he jumped off and led his pony. None too willingly, Ashton
followed the example set by his companion. There were some places
where he could not have avoided so doing--ledges that the old
buckskin, despite his years of mountain service, could hardly scramble
up under an empty saddle.

Long before they reached the point of the ridge, Ashton was panting
and sweating, and his handsome face was red from exertion and anger.
But his indignation at being misguided up so difficult a line of
ascent received a damper when he reached the lower end of the ridge
crest. Blake, who had waited patiently for him to clamber up the last
sharp slope, gave him a cheerful nod and pointed to the long but
fairly easy incline of the ridge crest.

"In mountain climbing, always take your stiffest ground first, when
you can," he said. "We can jog along pretty fast now."

They mounted and rode up the ridge, much of the time at a jog trot.
Before long they came to the top of High Mesa, and galloped across to
one of the ridges that lay parallel with Deep Cañon. Climbing the
ridge, they found themselves looking over into a ravine that ran down
to the right to join another ravine from the opposite direction, at
the head of Dry Fork Gulch. Blake turned and rode to the left along
the ridge, until he found a place where they could cross the ravine.
The still air was reverberating with the muffled roar of Deep Cañon.

From the ridge on the other side of the ravine, they could look down
between the scattered pines to the gaping chasm of the stupendous
cañon. But Blake rode to the right along the summit of the ridge until
they came opposite the head of Dry Fork Gulch. Here he flung the reins
over his pony's head, and dismounted. Ashton was about to do the same
when he caught sight of a wolf slinking away like a gray shadow up the
farther ravine. He reached for his rifle, and for the first time
noticed that he had failed to bring it along. In his haste to start
from camp he had left it in the tent.

"_Sacre!_" he petulantly exclaimed. "There goes twenty-five dollars!"

"How's that?" asked Blake. He looked and caught a glimpse of the wolf
just as it vanished. "Why don't you shoot?"

"Left my rifle in camp, curse the luck!"

"Keep cool," advised Blake. "It's only twenty-five dollars, and you
might have missed anyway."

"Not with my automatic," snapped Ashton. "You needn't sneer about the
money. You've seen times when you'd have been glad of a chance at half
the amount."

"That's true," gravely agreed the engineer. "What's more, I realize
that it is far harder for you than it ever was for me. I want to tell
you I admire the way you have stood your loss."

"You do?" burst out the younger man. "I want to tell _you_ I don't
admire the way you ruined me--babbling to my father--when you
promised to keep still! You sneak!"

Blake looked into the other's furious face with no shade of change in
his grave gaze. "I have never said a word to your father against you,"
he declared.

"Then--then how, after all this time--?" stammered Ashton, even in his
anger unable to disbelieve the engineer's quiet statement. He was
disconcerted only for the moment. Again he flared hotly: "But if you
didn't, old Leslie must have! It's all the same!"

"No, it is not the same," corrected Blake. "As for my father-in-law,
if he said anything about--the past, I feel sure it was not with
intention to hurt your interests."

"Hurt my interests! You know I am utterly ruined!"

"On the contrary, I know you are not ruined. You have lost a large
allowance, and a will has been made cutting you off from a great many
millions that you expected to inherit. But you have landed square on
your feet; you have a pretty good job, and you are stronger and
healthier than you were."

"If you break up Mr. Knowles' range with your irrigation schemes, I
stand to lose my job. You know that."

"If the project proves to be feasible, I shall offer you a position on
the works," said Blake.

"You needn't try to bribe me!" retorted Ashton. "I'm working for Mr.
Knowles."

"Well, he directed you to help me with this survey," replied the
engineer, with imperturbable good nature. "The next move is to chain
across to the cañon."

He pulled his surveyor's chain from the bag and descended the ridge to
an out-jutting rock above the head of the tremendous gorge in the
mountain side. Ashton followed him down. Blake handed him the front
end of the chain.

"You lead," he said. "I'll line you, as I know where to strike the
nearest point on the cañon."

Ashton sullenly started up the ridge, and the measurement began. As
Blake required only a rough approximation, they soon crossed the ridge
and chained down through the trees to the edge of Deep Cañon. Ashton
was astonished at the shortness of the distance. The cañon at this
point ran towards the mesa escarpment as if it had originally intended
to drive through into Dry Fork Gulch, but twisted sharp about and
curved back across the plateau. Even Blake was surprised at the
measurement. It was only a little over two thousand feet.

"Noticed this place when out with Mr. Knowles and Gowan," he remarked,
gazing down into the abyss with keen appreciation of its awful
grandeur. "They told me it is the nearest that the cañon comes to the
edge of the mesa, until it breaks out, thirty or forty miles down."

"How--how about that 'if' you said this measurement would settle?"
asked Ashton.

"What's the time?"

Ashton looked at his watch, frowning over the evasive reply. "It's
two-ten."

"I'll figure on the proposition while we eat lunch," said Blake. "I
can answer you better regarding that 'if' when I have done some
calculating. Luckily I climbed up to examine the rock in the gulch."
He smiled quizzically at his companion. "You were right as to its
being unclimbable; but I found out even more than I expected."

Ashton silently took the bag from him and arranged the lunch and his
canteen on a rock under a pine. The engineer figured and drew little
diagrams in his fieldbook while he ate his sandwiches. Ashton had half
drained the canteen on the way up the mountain. Before sitting down
Blake had rinsed out his mouth and taken a few swallows of water.
After eating, he started to take another drink, noticed his
companion's hot dry face, and stopped after a single sip.

"Guess you need it more than I do," he remarked, as he rose to his
feet. "Time to start. I wish to go around and down the mountain on the
other side of the gulch."

"How about the--the 'if'?" inquired Ashton.

"Killed," answered Blake. "There now is only one left. If that comes
out the same way, Dry Mesa will have good cause to change its name."

"You can tunnel through from the gulch to the cañon?" exclaimed
Ashton.

"Yes; and I shall do so--if Deep Cañon is not too deep."

"I hope it is a thousand feet below Dry Mesa!" said Ashton.

"In the circumstances," Blake replied to the fervent declaration, "I
am glad to hear you say it."

Ashton stared, but could detect no sarcasm in the other's smile of
commendation.



CHAPTER XVII

A SHOT IN THE DUSK


They returned to their grazing ponies, and at once started the descent
of the mountain, after crossing the ravine where they had seen the
wolf. Blake chose a route that brought them down into the valley above
the waterhole shortly before five o'clock. They cantered the remaining
distance along the wide, gravelly wash of the creek bed to the dike.

Looking down from the dike, they saw that Knowles and Gowan had come
up the creek and were waiting for them in company with the ladies.
Ashton set spurs to his horse and dashed across above the pool, to
descend the slope to the party. Blake descended on the other side, to
water his horse and slake his own thirst.

To Ashton's chagrin, Isobel joined Genevieve in hastening to meet the
engineer. He rode down beside the two men and jumped off to follow the
ladies. But Gowan sprang before him.

"Hold on," he said. "Mr. Knowles wants your report."

"If you'll oblige us, Lafe," added the cowman. "I'm pretty much worked
up."

"You have cause to be!" replied Ashton. "He says the only question
left is whether the water in the cañon is not at too low a level. We
measured across from the creek gulch to the cañon. A tunnel is
practicable, he says."

"Through all that mountain?" scoffed Gowan. "It's solid rock, clean
through. It would take him a hundred years to burrow a hole like
that."

"You know nothing of engineering and its tools. We now have electric
drills that will eat into granite like cheese," condescendingly
explained Ashton.

"Think I don't know that? But just you try to figure out how he's
going to get his electricity for his drills," retorted Gowan.

Without stopping for his disconcerted rival to reply, he turned his
back on him and started towards Isobel. The girl was running up from
the pool, her face almost pitiful with disappointment.

"Oh, Daddy!" she called, "Mr. Blake says that if the water in the
cañon--"

"Needn't tell me, honey. I know already," broke in her father,
hastening to meet her.

She flung her arms about his neck, and sobbed brokenly: "I'm--I'm so
sorry for you, D-Daddy!"

"There, there now!" he soothed, awkwardly patting her back. "'Tisn't
like you to cry before you're hurt."

"No, no--you! not me. It doesn't matter about me!"

"Doesn't it, though! But I'm not hurt either, as yet. It's a long ways
from being a sure thing."

"All the way down to the bottom of Deep Cañon!" put in Ashton.

"And then some!" added Gowan. "I've hit on another 'if,' Miss
Chuckie."

"You have? Oh, Kid, tell us!"

"It's this: How's he going to get electricity to dig his tunnel?"

Blake was coming up from the pool, with his baby in one arm and his
wife clinging fondly to the other. He met the coldly exultant glance
of Gowan, and smiled.

"The only question regarding the power is one of cost, Mr. Gowan," he
said. "There is no coal near enough to be hauled. But gasolene is not
bulky. If there was water power to generate electricity, a tunnel
could be bored at half the cost I have figured. The point is that
there is no water power available, nor will there be until the tunnel
is finished."

"What! You talk about finishing the tunnel? Didn't you say it is still
uncertain about the water?" demanded Knowles.

"I was merely explaining to Mr. Gowan," replied Blake. "The question
he raised is one of the factors in our problem as to whether an
irrigation project is practicable. We now know that we have the land
for it, the tunnel site, the reservoir site--" he pointed to the
valley above the dike--"and I have figured that the cost of
construction would not be excessive. All that remains is to determine
if we have the water. I have already explained that this will require
a descent into the cañon."

"You say that that will decide it, one way or the other?" queried
Knowles, his forehead creased with deep lines of foreboding.

"Yes," replied Blake. "I regret that you feel as you do about it.
Consider what it would mean to hundreds, yes, thousands of people, if
this mesa were watered. I assure you that you, too, would benefit by
the project."

"I don't care for any such benefit, Mr. Blake. I've been a cowman for
twenty-five years. I want to keep my range until the time comes for me
to take the long trail."

"It would be hard to change," agreed the engineer. "However, the point
now is to find what Deep Cañon has to tell us."

"You still think you can go down it?"

"Yes, if I have ropes, a two-pound hammer, and some iron pins;
railroad spikes and picket-pins would do."

"Going to rope the rocks and pull them up for steps?" asked Gowan.

"I shall need two or three hundred feet of half-inch manila," said
Blake, ignoring the sarcasm.

"They may have it at Stockchute," said Knowles. "Kid, you can drive
over with the wagon and fetch Mr. Blake all the rope and other things
he wants. I can't stand this waiting much longer."

"There will be no time lost," said Blake. "It will take Ashton and me
all of tomorrow to carry a line of levels up the mountain."

"Why need you do that, Tom?" asked his wife.

"Yes, why, if all that's left is to go down into the cañon?" added
Isobel, dabbing the tears from her wet eyes.

Ashton thrust in an answer before Blake could speak. "We must see how
high the upper mesa is above this one, Miss Chuckie, and then compare
the difference of altitude with the depth of the cañon, to see whether
its bottom is above or below the bottom of the gulch."

"Oh--measure up and then down, to see which way is longest," said
Genevieve.

"Sorry, ma'am," broke in Knowles. "We'll have to be starting now to
get home by dark. If you think you can trust me with that young man,
I'd like the honor of packing him all the way in. I've toted calves
for miles, so I guess I can hold onto a baby if I use both hands."

"You shall have him!" replied Genevieve, smiling like a daughter as
she met the look in his grave eyes. "Tom, give Thomas to Mr.
Knowles--when he is safe in the saddle."

Even Gowan cracked a smile at this cautious qualification. He hastened
to bring Isobel's horse and hold him for her--which gave Ashton the
opportunity to help her mount. Both services were needless, but she
rewarded each eager servitor with a dimpled smile. When Blake handed
the baby up to Knowles, his wife, untroubled by mock modesty, gave him
a loving kiss. He lifted her bodily into the saddle, and she rode off
with her three companions.

Isobel, however, wheeled within the first few yards, and came back for
a parting word: "You can expect us quite early tomorrow. We will
overtake you on your way up the mountain. I wish Genevieve to see the
cañon. Good night--Pleasant dreams!"

She had addressed Ashton, but her last smile was for Blake, and it was
undisguisedly affectionate. As she loped away after the others, Ashton
frowned, and, picking up his rifle, started off up the valley. Blake
was staring after the girl with a wondering look. He turned to cast a
quizzical glance at the back of the resentful lover.

When the latter had disappeared around the hill, the engineer took the
frying pan and walked up into the creek bed above the dike. After
going some distance over the gravel bars, he came to a place where
the swirl of the last freshet had gouged a hole almost to bedrock.
Scooping a panful of sand and gravel from the bottom of the hole, he
went back and squatted down beside the pool within easy reach of the
water.

He picked the larger pebbles from the pan, added water, and began to
swirl the contents around with a circular motion. Each turn flirted
some of the sand and water over the pan's beveled edge. Every little
while he renewed the water. At last the pan's contents were reduced to
a half dozen, irregular, dirty, little lumps and a handful of "black
sand" in which gleamed numbers of yellow particles.

Blake put the nuggets into his pocket and threw the rest out into the
pool. He returned to the tent and sat down to re-check his level-book
and his calculations on the approximate cost of the tunnel. Sundown
found him still figuring; but when twilight faded into dusk, he put
away his fieldbook and started a fire for supper.

He was in the act of setting on a pan of bacon when, without the
slightest warning, a bullet cut the knot of the loose neckerchief
under his downbent chin. In the same instant that he heard the ping of
the shot he pitched sideways and flattened himself on the ground with
the chuck-box between him and the fire. A roll and a quick crawl took
him into the underbrush beyond the circle of firelight. No second
bullet followed him in his amazingly swift movements. He lay
motionless, listening intently, but no sound broke the stillness of
the evening except the distant wail of a coyote and the hoot of an
owl.

Half an hour passed, and still the engineer waited. The dusk deepened
into darkness. At last a heavy footfall sounded up on the dike. Blake
rose, and slipping silently to the tent, groped about until he found a
heavy iron picket-pin.

Someone came down the slope and kicked his way petulantly through the
bushes to the dying fire. He threw on an armful of brush. The light of
the up-blazing flame showed Ashton standing beside the chuck-box,
rifle in hand. But he dropped the weapon to pick up the overturned
frying pan, which lay at his feet.

"Hello, Blake!" he sang out irritably. "I supposed you'd have supper
waiting. Haven't turned in this early, have you?"

"No," replied Blake, and he came forward, carelessly swinging the
picket-pin. "Thought I saw a coyote sneaking about, and tried to trick
him into coming close enough for me to nail him with this pin."

"With that!" scoffed Ashton. "But it would do as well as my rifle. I
took a shot at a wolf, and then the mechanism jammed. I can't get it
to work."

"You fired a shot?" asked Blake.

"Yes. Was it too far off for you to hear? I circled all around these
hills."

"No, I heard it," replied Blake, looking close into the other's sullen
face. "You may not have been as far away as you thought."

"I was far enough," grumbled Ashton. "I've walked till I'm hungry as a
shark."

"Do you realize that you want to be careful how you shoot with these
high-power rifles?" asked Blake. "They carry a mile or more."

"I've carried mine more than that, and _it_ won't carry an inch,"
complained Ashton. "Wish you would see if you can fix it, while I get
on some bacon."

Blake took his scrutinizing gaze from his companion's face, and picked
up the rifle. Ashton showed plainly that he was tired and hungry and
very irritable, but there was no trace of guilt in his look or manner.
While he hurriedly prepared supper, Blake took apart the mechanism of
the rifle. He discovered the trouble at once.

"This is easy," he said. "Nothing broken--just a screw loose. Have you
been monkeying with the parts, to see how they work?"

"No; I don't care a hang how they work. What gets me is that they
didn't work!"

"Queer, then, how this screw got loose," said Blake as he tightened it
with the blade of his pocket knife. "It sets tight enough. Of course
it might have come from the factory a bit loose, and jarred out with
the firing; but neither seems probable."

"Is it all right now?" queried Ashton.

"Yes.--Seems to me someone _must_ have loosened this screw."

"What's the difference how it happened, if it will not happen again?"
irritably replied Ashton. "Guess this bacon is fried enough. Let's
eat."

Blake recoupled the rifle, emptied the magazine, tested the mechanism,
refilled the magazine, and joined his ravenous companion in his
ill-cooked meal.

Immediately after eating, Ashton flung himself down in the tent. A few
minutes later Blake crept in beside him and struck a match. The young
man had already fallen into the deep slumber of utter physical and
mental relaxation. Blake went outside and listened to the wailing of
the coyotes. Difficult as it was to determine the direction of their
mournful cries, he at last satisfied himself that they were circling
entirely around the camp.

A watchdog could not have indicated with greater certainty that there
was no other wild beast or any human being lurking near the waterhole.
Blake crept back into the tent and was soon fast asleep beside his
companion.



CHAPTER XVIII

ON THE BRINK


Early to bed, early to rise. The two men were up at dawn. During the
night the coyotes had sneaked into the camp. But Blake had fastened
the food in the chuck-box and slung everything gnawable up in the
branches out of reach of the sly thieves.

At sunrise the two started out on their day's work, Ashton carrying
his rifle and canteen and the level rod, Blake with the level and a
bag containing their lunch and a two-quart sirup-can of water.

"We'll run a new line from the dike bench, around the hill and across
the valley the way we rode out yesterday," said the engineer, as they
climbed the slope above the waterhole. "That will give us a check by
cross-tying to the line of the creek levels where it runs into the
gulch."

"Can't you trust to the accuracy of your own work?" asked Ashton with
evident intent to mortify.

Blake smiled in his good-natured way. "You forget the first rule of
engineering. Always check when you can, then re-check and check
again.--Now, if you'll kindly give me a reading off that bench."

Ashton complied, though with evident ill will. He had wakened in good
spirits, but was fast returning to his sullenness of the previous day.
He took his time in going from the bench-mark to the first turning
point. Blake moved up past him with inspiring briskness, but the
younger man kept to his leisurely saunter. In rounding the corner of
the hill twice as much time was consumed as was necessary.

When they came to the last turn at the foot of the rocky slope, where
the line struck out across the valley towards the foot of the mountain
side, Ashton paused to roll a cigarette before holding his rod for the
reading. Small as was the incident, it was particularly aggravating to
an engineer. The reading would have taken only a moment, and he could
then have rolled his cigarette and smoked it while Blake was moving
past him for the next "set up." Instead, he deliberately kept Blake
waiting until the cigarette had been rolled and lighted.

Blake "pulled up" his level and started forward, his face impassive.
Ashton leaned jauntily on the rod, sucked in a mouthful of smoke, and
raising his cigarette, flicked the ash from the tip with his little
finger. At the same instant a bullet from the crags above him pierced
the crown of his hat. He pitched forward on his face, rolled half
over, and lay quiet.

Most men would have been dumfounded by the frightful suddenness of the
occurrence--the shot and the instant fall of Ashton. It was like a
stroke of lightning out of a clear sky. Blake did not stand gaping
even for a moment. As Ashton's senseless body struck the ground, he
sprang sideways and bent to lay down his instrument, with the
instinctive carefulness of an old railroad surveyor. A swift rush
towards Ashton barely saved him from the second bullet that came
pinging down from the hill crest. It burned across the back of his
shoulder.

Heedless of the blood spurting from the wound in the side of Ashton's
head, Blake snatched up the automatic rifle and fired at a point
between two knobs of rock on the hill crest. Promptly a hat appeared,
then an arm and a rifle. It might have been expected that a bullet
would have instantly followed; yet the assassin was strangely
deliberate about getting his aim. Blake did not wait for him. He began
to fire as fast as the automatic ejector and reloader set the rifle
trigger. Three bullets sped up at the assassin before he had time to
drop back out of sight.

Blake started up the hillside, his pale eyes like white-hot steel. He
was in a fury, but it was the cold fury of a man too courageous for
reckless bravado. He went up the hill as an Apache would have charged,
dodging from cover to cover and, wherever possible, keeping in line
with a rock or tree in his successive rushes. At every brief stop he
scanned the ridge crest for a sign of his enemy. But the assassin did
not show himself. For all that Blake could tell, he might be waiting
for a sure shot, or he might be lying with a bullet through his
brain.

To avoid suicidal exposure, the engineer was compelled to veer off to
the right in his ascent. He reached the ridge crest without a shot
having been fired at him. Leaping suddenly to his feet, he scrambled
up to the flat top of a high crag, from which he could peer down upon
the others. The natural embrazure from which the assassin had fired
was exposed to his view; but the place was empty. He looked cautiously
about at the many huge bowlders behind which a hundred men might have
been crouching unseen by him, advantageous as was his position. To
flush the assassin would require a bold rush over and around the
rocks.

Blake set his powerful jaw and gathered himself together for the leap
down from his crag. At that moment his alert eye caught a glimpse of a
swiftly moving object on the mesa at the foot of the far side of the
hill. It was a horse and rider racing out of sight around the bend of
a ridge point.

Blake whipped the rifle to his shoulder. But the cowardly fugitive had
disappeared. He lowered the rifle and started back down the hill
faster than he had come up. Leaping like a goat, sliding, rushing--he
raced to the bottom in a direct line for Ashton.

The victim lay as he had fallen, his head ghastly red with blood,
which was still oozing from his wound. Blake dropped down beside the
flaccid body and tore open the front of the silk shirt. He thrust in
his hand. For some moments he was baffled by the violent throbbing of
his own pulse. Then, at last, he detected a heartbeat, very feeble and
slow yet unmistakable.

He turned Ashton on his side, and washing away the blood with water
from the canteen, examined the wound with utmost carefulness. The
bullet had pierced the scalp and plowed a furrow down along the side
of the skull, grazing but not penetrating the bone.

"Only stunned.... Mighty close, though," muttered Blake. He looked at
the ashen face of the wounded man and added apprehensively, "Too
close!... Concussion--"

Hastily he knotted a compress bandage made of handkerchiefs and
neckerchiefs around the bleeding head, and stretching Ashton flat
on his back, began to pump his arms up and down as is done in
resuscitating a drowned person. After a time Ashton's face began
to lose its deathly pallor. His heart beat less feebly; he drew in a
deep sighing breath, and stared up dazedly at Blake, with slowly
returning consciousness.

"I'll smoke all I please and when I please," he murmured in a
supercilious drawl.

Blake dashed his face with the cupful of water still left in the
canteen. The wounded man flushed with quick anger and attempted to
rise.

"What--what you--How dare you?" he spluttered, only to sink back with
a groan, "My head! O-o-oh! You've smashed my head!"

"You're in luck that your head _wasn't_ smashed," replied Blake. "It
was a bullet knocked you over."

"Bullet?" echoed Ashton.

"Yes. Scoundrel up on the hill tried to get us both."

"Up on the hill?" Ashton twisted his head about, in alarm, to look at
the hill crest. "But if he--He may shoot again."

"Not this time. I went up for him. He went down faster, other side the
hill. Saw him on the run. The sneaking--" Blake closed his lips on the
word. After a moment his grimness relaxed. "Came back to start your
funeral. Found you'd cheated the undertaker. How do you feel now?"

"I believe I--" began Ashton, again trying to raise himself, only to
sink back as before. "My head!--What makes me so weak?"

"Don't worry," reassured Blake. "It's only a scalp wound. You are weak
from the shock and a little loss of blood. I'll get you a drink from
my can, and then tote you into camp. You'll be all right in a day or
two."

He fetched the can of water from his bag, which he had dropped beside
the level. Ashton drank with the thirstiness of one who has lost
blood. When at last his thirst was quenched, he glanced up at Blake
with a look of half reluctant apology.

"I said something about your striking me," he murmured. "I did not
understand--did not realize I had been shot. You see, just before--"

"That's all right," broke in Blake. "I owe you a bigger apology. Last
evening, while you were out hunting, someone took a shot at me. It
must have been this same sneaking skunk. I thought it was you."

"You thought I could try to--to shoot you?" muttered Ashton.

"Yes. There's the old matter of the bridge, and you seem to think I am
responsible for what your father has done. But after you came in, I
soon concluded that you had fired towards the camp unintentionally."

"If you had asked," explained Ashton, "I was around at the far end of
these hills, nearly two miles from the camp, when I shot at the wolf
and the rifle went wrong."

"That was a fortunate occurrence--your going out and seeing the wolf;"
said Blake. "If you hadn't taken that shot, we would not have known
your rifle was out of gear. My first bullet merely made the sneak rise
up to pot me. If the rapidity of the next three shots hadn't rattled
him, I believe he would have potted me, instead of running."

"So that was it?" exclaimed Ashton. "Do you know, I believe it must be
the same scoundrel who attacked me the first day I rode down Dry
Fork. No doubt he remembered how I ripped loose at him with the
automatic-catch set."

"Your thieving guide?" said Blake. "But why should he try to kill
me?"

"I'm sure I don't know," murmured Ashton. "Another drink, please."

"I shall tote you back to camp, and--No, I'll lay you over there in
the shade and go up to see if he is in sight."

Picking up the wounded man as easily as if he had been a child, the
engineer carried him over under a tree, fetched him the can of water,
and for the second time climbed the rocky hillside. Scaling his
lookout crag, he surveyed the country below him. A mile down the creek
two riders were coming up towards the waterhole at an easy canter. He
surmised that they were his wife and Miss Knowles.

Their approach brought a shade of anxiety into his strong face. He
swept the landscape with his glance. A little cloud of dust far out on
the mesa towards Split Peak caught his eye. He looked at it
steadfastly under his hand, and drew a deep breath of relief as he
made out a fleeing horse and rider.

He descended to Ashton, and taking him up pick-a-back, swung away for
the camp with long, swift strides. Before he had gone half the
distance, he felt Ashton's arms loosening their clasp of his neck. He
caught him as he sank in a swoon. Without a moment's hesitation, he
slung his senseless burden up on his shoulder like a sack of meal, and
hastened on faster than before.

Swiftly as he walked, the ladies reached the camp before him. When he
came to the top of the dike slope, his wife had dismounted and Isobel
was handing down the baby to her. As the girl slipped out of the
saddle she looked up the slope. With a startled cry, she darted to
meet Blake.

Quick to forestall her alarm, he called in a gasping shout: "Not
serious--not serious!"

"Oh, Tom--Mr. Blake!" she cried. "What has happened?"

"Scalp wound--faint--blood loss," Blake panted in terse answer.

"He is wounded? O-o-oh!" She ran up and looked fearfully at the
bloodsoaked bandages across Ashton's hanging head.

Blake staggered on down the slope without pausing. Genevieve had
started to meet him. But at her husband's panting explanation, she
laid the baby on the nearest soft spot of earth and darted to the
kit-chest. She was opening a "first aid" box when Blake crashed
through the bushes and sank down with his burden under the first
tree.

Genevieve hastened towards the men, calling to her companion: "Water,
Chuckie--that pail by the fireplace."

The girl flew to fetch a bucket of water from the pool.

Blake was peering anxiously down into Ashton's white face.
"Didn't--know--but--that--" he panted.

"No," reassured his wife. "He will soon be all right."

She drew the unconscious man flat on his back and held a bottle of
ammonia to his nostrils. The powerful stimulant revived him just as
the girl came running back with the water. He opened his eyes, and the
first object they rested upon was her anxious pitiful face. He smiled
and whispered gallantly: "Don't be afraid. I'm all right--now!"

"Then I'll drink first," said Blake.

He took a deep draught from the pail, doused a hatful of water over
his hot head and face, and stretched out to cool off. Genevieve,
assisted by the deeply concerned girl, took the handkerchief bandage
from Ashton's head and washed the wound with an antiseptic solution.
She then clipped away the hair from the edges and drew the scalp
together with a number of stitches.

In this last the hardy cowgirl was unable to help. She clasped
Ashton's hand convulsively and sat shuddering. Ashton smiled up into
her tender pitying eyes. Genevieve had numbed his wound with cocaine.
He was quite satisfied with the situation.

Another antiseptic washing and a compress of sterilized cotton bound
on with surgical bandages completed the operation. Then, when it was
all over with, the young mother, who had gone through everything with
the aplomb and deftness of a surgeon, quietly sank back in a faint. On
the instant Blake was reaching for the ammonia bottle.

A whiff restored his wife to consciousness. She opened her eyes, and
smiling at her weakness, sought to rise. He held her down with gentle
force and ordered her to lie quiet.

"I shall fetch Tommy," he added. "We'll all take a _siesta_ until
noon."



CHAPTER XIX

THE PLOTTERS


When Blake came back with the baby, Isobel begged him for a full
account of how Ashton had been wounded. In relating the affair he
sought to minimize the danger that he had incurred, and he omitted all
mention of the bullet shot at him the previous evening. But his
account was frequently interrupted by exclamations from his wife and
Isobel.

At the end he dwelt strongly on the cowardly haste of the assassin's
flight; only to be met by a shrewdly anxious rejoinder from the girl:
"He ran away after he attacked Lafe the other time. He will come back
again!"

"Oh, Tom!" cried Genevieve--"if he does!"

"We will get him, that is all there is to it," replied her husband.
"What do you say to that, Ashton?"

"We will not have the chance," said Ashton. "I don't believe he has
nerve enough to try it the third time. But if he should--"

"No, no! I hope he keeps running forever!" fervently wished Isobel.
"Don't you realize how close a miss that was, Lafe?--and the other
time, too?"

"I like having one Miss close," he punned.

The girl blushed, but failed to show any sign of resentment.

Blake looked significantly at his wife. "Don't know but what I've
changed my mind about a _siesta_," he remarked. "Here's Tommy gone to
sleep just when I wanted to fight him. Do you think Miss Chuckie can
keep him and Ashton from running away if I go to bring in the level?"

"You say you had started to run the line of levels across to the
mountain?" she asked.

"Yes.... This little pleasantry has knocked us out of a day's work and
you out of your trip to the cañon."

"But why couldn't I rod for you?" she suggested. "I noticed Lafayette
the other day. It seems easier than golfing."

"It is."

"Then I shall do it. A good walk is exactly what I need."

"Genevieve!" hastily appealed Isobel. "Surely you'll not go off and
leave me--us!"

"Thomas is asleep, and Lafayette needs to be quiet," was the demure
reply. "Come, Tom. We'll run the levels over to the foot of the
mountain, at least."

With a reproachful glance at the smiling couple, the girl slipped over
to put Thomas Herbert between herself and Ashton. Blake found another
bag and can, which last he filled with water from the bucket.
Genevieve put on the cowboy hat that she had borrowed at the ranch,
and sprang up to join him.

He paused for a question: "How about leaving the rifle?"

Isobel put her hand to a fold in her skirt and drew out her
long-barreled automatic pistol. "I can do as well or better with
this," she answered.

"What a wicked looking thing!" exclaimed Genevieve. "Surely, dear, you
do not shoot it?"

"Shoot it!" put in Ashton. "Hasn't she told you about saving me from a
rattler?"

"She did?"

"Yes," he replied, and he told about the rattlesnake in the
bunkhouse.

"But I ought to have shot quicker," Isobel explained, when he
finished. "I missed the head, though I aimed at it."

"The way we've left Thomas about on the ground!" exclaimed Genevieve.
"Are there any of the horrid things around here? Is that why you carry
the pistol?"

"No, no, don't be afraid. We've killed them out here, long ago,
because of the cattle. I carry my pistol on the chance of killing
wolves. They're dreadfully harmful to the calves and colts, you
know."

"Good for you," praised Blake, as he picked up the rifle. "Well, we're
off."

He started away, hand in hand with his wife. They were soon at the top
of the dike slope and almost dancing along over the dry turf. It was
months since they had been alone together in the open, and they were
still deeper in love than at the time of their marriage--if that were
possible.

They soon reached the place where the shooting had occurred. Here they
picked up the lunch bag, Ashton's canteen and his hat, now punctured
with another bullet hole; and at once started to carry the line of
levels out across the valley. A few words of instruction made an
efficient rodwoman of Genevieve, so that they soon reached the foot of
the ridge up which her husband had led Ashton the previous day. Here
he established a bench-mark, and turned along the base of the
escarpment to the mouth of Dry Fork Gully, where he checked the line
of levels that had been run up the bed of the creek.

"Good work--less than three tenths difference, and all that I am
concerned about is an error in feet," he commented. "It's getting
along towards noon. We'll go up the gulch, and eat our lunch in the
shade. This place is almost as much of a sight as the cañon."

Genevieve more than agreed with her husband's opinion when he led her
up into the stupendous gorge and the walls of rock began to tower on
each side ever steeper and loftier.

"Oh, I do not see how anything can be so grand, so awesome as this!"
she cried, gazing up the precipices. "It makes me positively giddy to
look at such heights!"

"Better stop off for a while," advised Blake. "We are almost to where
the bottom tilts skyward. You can stargaze while we are eating lunch.
It's rougher along here. We can get on faster this way."

He picked her up in his arms as though she were a feather, and carried
her on up the gulch to the foot of the Titanic chute. Here, resting on
a flat rock in the cool semi-twilight of the gorge bottom, they ate
their lunch and talked with as much zest as if they were still new
acquaintances.

"Those awful cliffs!" she murmured, lowering her gaze from the
colossal walls above her. "I cannot bear to look at them any longer.
They overpower me!"

"Wait till you look down into the cañon," replied her husband. "In
some ways it is more tremendous than the Grand Cañon of the
Colorado--the width is so much narrower in proportion to the depth."

"What makes these frightful chasms?--earthquakes?"

"Water," he replied.

"Water? Not all these hundreds and thousands of feet cut down through
the solid rock!"

"Every foot," he insisted. "Think of water flowing along in the
same bed and always washing sand and gravel and even bowlders
downstream--grind, grind, grind, through the centuries and hundreds of
centuries."

"But there is no water here, Tom."

"Not now, and no chance of any this time of year, else I wouldn't
have brought you in here. A sudden heavy June rain up above there
would pour down a torrent that would drown us before we could run
three hundred yards. Imagine a flood roaring down that bumpy
shoot-the-chutes."

"I can't! It's too terrifying. Is that the way it will be if you get
the water and dig the tunnel?"

"No. At this end, the tunnel may terminate any place from down here to
a thousand feet up, but in any event far below the top. I hope it
proves to be well up. The greater the drop to the level of the mesa,
the more turbines could be put in to generate electricity."

"That sounds so inspiring! But, Dear--" Genevieve looked at her
husband with a shade of anxiety--"even if this project is feasible, do
you feel you should carry it through?"

"You mean on account of Miss Chuckie and her father," he replied. "I
have considered their side of the matter, and even at the first I saw
how--Listen, Sweetheart. No one knows better than you that I'm an
engineer to the very marrow of my bones. My work in life is to
construct,--to harness the forces of nature and compel them to serve
mankind; and to save waste--waste material, waste energy--and put it
to use."

"Don't I know, Tom!"

"Well, then," he went on, "in the bottom of Deep Cañon is a
river--waste waters down there beyond the reach of this rich but
waterless land, down in the gloom, doing no good to anything or
anybody, frittering away their energy on barren rocks. Why, it's as
bad as the way Ashton, with all the good qualities we now see he has
in him--the way he dissipated his strength and his brains and his
father's money."

"Ah, Dear! wasn't it a splendid thing when he was thrown out of his
rut of wastefulness?"

"Otherwise known as the primrose path, or the great white way," added
Blake. "It certainly was a throw out. I'm as pleased as I am
astonished that he seems to have landed squarely on his feet."

"What a marvelous change it has made in him!" exclaimed Genevieve.
"Sometimes I hardly can believe it really is Lafayette. He is so
serious and manly."

"Good thing he has changed," replied Blake. "If Miss Chuckie hadn't
told us he had made a clean breast of that bridge, I should begin to
feel worried about--Do you know, Sweetheart, it's the strangest thing
in the world the way I feel towards that girl. It's not because she is
so lovely. Of course I enjoy her beauty, but that's not it. If Tommy
were a girl and grown up--that's how I feel."

"She is a very dear, sweet girl."

"So are several of your friends--our friends," said Blake. "This is
different. The very first day we met her, there was something about
her voice and face--seemed as though I already knew her."

"She knew you, through what she had read of you. She warned me, in
that frank, charming way of hers, that you were a hero to her and I
must not mind if she worshiped you openly."

Blake laughed pleasedly. "Isn't she the greatest! And the way she
chums with me! Wonder if that is what makes Ashton so sore at me? The
idiot! Can't he see the difference?"

"Lovers always are blind," said Genevieve.

"I'm not," he rejoined, his eyes, as he gazed down into hers, as blue
and tender as Isobel's.

The young wife blushed deliciously and rewarded him with a kiss.

"But about Chuckie?" she returned to the previous question. "You were
going to tell me--"

"I am going to tell you something you will think is very fanciful--and
it is! Do you know why I am so taken with that girl? It's because
she reminds me of my sisters--what they might have grown to be!...
God!--" he bent over with his face in his shaking hands--"God! If only
they had gone any other way than--the way they did!"

"My poor dear boy!" soothed his wife, her hand on his downbent head.
"Let us trust that they are in a happier world, a world where sorrow
and pain--"

"If only I could believe that!" he groaned.

Genevieve waited a few moments and with quiet tactfulness sought to
divert him from his grief: "If Chuckie reminds you of them, Dear--"

"She might be either--only Mary, the older one, had dark brown eyes.
But Belle's were blue like Chuckie's."

"What a pure blue her eyes are--the sweet true girl! Why can't you
regard her as your sister, and--and give over further thought of this
irrigation project?"

Blake looked up, completely diverted. "You little schemer! So that's
what you've been working around to?"

"But why not?" she insisted.

"I'll tell you. It is because I am so fond of Chuckie that I am
determined to get water on Dry Mesa, if it is possible."

"But--"

"To make use of those waste waters," he explained; "to turn this dusty
semi-desert into a garden; and to benefit Chuckie by doubling the
value of her father's property."

"How could that be, when the farmers would divide up his range?"

"He owns five sections, Chuckie told me. What are they worth now? But
with water on them, even without a single tree planted, they would
sell as orchard land for more than all his herd; and he would still
have his cattle. He could sell them to the settlers for more than what
he now gets shipping them over the range."

"I begin to see, Tom. I might have known it."

"I'm telling you, of course. We're to keep it from them as a happy
surprise, because it may not come off. There's still the question
whether the water in the cañon--"

"But if it is! How delightful it will be to help Mr. Knowles and
Chuckie, besides, as you say, turning this desert into a garden!"

"That valley is a natural reservoir site to hold flood waters,"
continued the engineer. "All that's needed is a dam built across the
narrow place above the waterhole, with the dike for foundation. I
would build it of rock from the tunnel, run down on a gravity tram."

"You've worked it all out?"

"Not all, only the general scheme. If the tunnel comes through high
enough up here, we shall be able to manufacture cheap electricity to
sell. Just think of our settlers plowing by electricity, and their
wives cooking on electric stoves."

"You humorous boy!"

"No, I mean it. There's another thing--I wouldn't whisper it even to
you if you weren't my partner as well as my wife. I have reason to
believe the creek bed above the dike is a rich placer. I've planned to
take Knowles and Ashton in on that discovery--Gowan, too, if Knowles
asks it."

"A placer?"

"Yes, placer mine--gold washed down in the creek bed. But it's a small
thing compared with another discovery I've made. Up there--" Blake
pointed up the steep ledges that he had climbed--"I found a bonanza."

"Bonanza? What is that, pray?"

"A mint, a John D. bank account, a--Guess?"

"A gold mine! Oh, Tom, how romantic!"

"Yes; it's free-milling quartz. We can mill it ourselves, and not have
to pay tribute to the Smelting Trust. That's romance--or at least
sounds like it. You will pay for all the development work, in return
for one-third share. I shall take a third, as the discoverer, and
Chuckie gets the remaining third as grub-staker."

"As what?"

"She is staking us with grub--food and supplies. If she had not sent
for me to come and look over the situation, I should not have been
here to stumble on this mine. So she gets a share."

"I'm glad, glad, Tom! Isn't it nice to be able to do fine things for
others? I'm so glad for Chuckie's sake, because, if Lafayette keeps on
as he is doing now, he may win his father's forgiveness."

"What has that to do with Chuckie?"

"You and I know what she is, Dear; yet if she had no money, his father
might insist on regarding her as a mere farm girl. He is as--as
snobbish as I was when we were flung ashore by the storm, there in
Mozambique."

"I fail to see that it matters any to Chuckie what Ashton senior
thinks."

"Of course you don't see. You're as blind as when I--" the lady
blushed--"as when I had to fling myself at you to make you see. The
dear girl is as deeply in love with Lafayette as he is with her."

"No? She doesn't show it. How can you tell?"

"You know that Mr. Gowan is desperately in love with her."

"That stands to reason. He couldn't help but be. Can't say I like
the fellow. He may be all right, though. Must have some good
qualities--Chuckie seems to be very fond of him."

"As fond as if he were a brother. No; Lafayette is to be the happy
man--unless he backslides. We must help him."

Blake nodded. "That's another thing that hangs on this project. If it
proves to be feasible, I can give Ashton a chance to make good as an
engineer. I used to think he must have bought his C.E. Now I see he
has the makings."

"He can be brilliant when he chooses. If only he were not so--so
scatter-brained."

"What he needed was a jolt heavy enough to shake him together. It
seems as though his father gave it to him."

"That shock, and being picked up by Chuckie," agreed Genevieve.

"We'll help her keep him braced until the cement sets," said her
husband. "It's even worse to let brains go to waste than water."

"Far worse! What is the good of all your engineering--of all the
machinery, yes, and all the culture of civilization, if not to uplift
men and women? May the next generation work for the uplifting of all
mankind, both materially and spiritually!"

"We might make a try at it ourselves," said Blake. "As for the future,
I know it will not be your fault if our member of the next generation
fails to do his share of uplift work."

The young mother placed her hand on her bosom, and sprang up. "We
should be going back, Dear. Thomas will be wakening."



CHAPTER XX

INDIAN SHOES


They returned along the shadowy bottom of the great gorge to the
glaring sunshine of the open creek bed, where they had left the rod
and level. Blake placed both upon one of his broad shoulders, and gave
his wife the unencumbered arm to assist her somewhat hurried pace.

As they approached the dike her hasty steps quickened to a run. She
darted ahead down to the camp. Thomas Herbert Vincent was vociferating
for his dinner. Blake followed at a walk. He was only a father.

When he came down to the trees he found Isobel and Ashton alone. The
girl's manner was constrained and her color higher than usual. Ashton,
comfortably outstretched on a blanket with her saddle for pillow,
frowned petulantly at the intruder. But Isobel sprang up and came to
meet Blake, unable to conceal her relief.

"I was so glad to see Genevieve," she said. "You came back just in
time."

"How's that?" asked Blake, his eyes twinkling.

She blushed, but quickly recovered from her confusion to dimple and
cast a teasing glance at Ashton. "Baby woke up," she answered. "You
may not know it, but babies cry when they fail to get what they
want."

"He's getting what he wants--I'm not!" complained Ashton.

"I--I must see if Genevieve needs anything," murmured the girl, and
she fled to the tent.

"I need you!" Ashton called after her without avail.

"How're you feeling?" inquired Blake.

Ashton's frown deepened to a scowl.

"Didn't mean how you feel towards me," added Blake. "I can guess that.
My reference was to your head."

"I'm all right," snapped Ashton. "Needn't worry. I'm still weak and
dizzy, but I shall be quite able to do my work tomorrow."

"That's fine," said the engineer, with insistent good humor. "However,
if you feel at all shaky in the morning, I can perhaps get Gowan, or
maybe Miss Chuckie would like to--"

"No!" broke in Ashton. "She shall not! I will do it, I tell you."

"Very well," said Blake. He put down the level and rod, but retained
the rifle. "Tell the ladies I shall be back before long. I am going
to look for something I forgot this morning."

Without waiting for the other's reply, he returned up the dike slope
and around the bend of the hill to where Ashton had been shot. That
for which he was looking was not here, for he at once turned and
started up the hill. He climbed direct to the place where the assassin
had lain in wait.

The bare ledge told Blake nothing, but from a crevice nearby he picked
out two long thirty-eight caliber rifle shells. He put them into his
pocket and went over to scan the mesa from the top of his lookout
crag. He could see no sign of the fugitive murderer. Down below the
mesa side of the hill, however, he saw a man riding up the bank of Dry
Fork, and recognized him as Knowles.

Trained to alert observation by years of life on the range, the cowman
had already perceived Blake. He wheeled aside and rode towards the
hill when the engineer waved his hat and began to descend. The two met
at the foot of the rugged slope.

"Howdy, Mr. Blake," greeted the cowman, "I thought I'd just ride up to
see how things are coming along."

"Not so fast as they might, Mr. Knowles. We have stopped for
repairs."

"Haven't broken your level?"

"No. Ashton is laid up for the day with a scalp wound. We were shot
at this morning from up there--other side of the crest."

"Shot at, and Lafe hit?"

"Not seriously, though it could not well have been a closer shave. He
says he will be all right by tomorrow," said Blake, and he gave the
bald details of the occurrence in a few words.

Knowles listened without comment, his leathery face stolid, but his
eyes glinting. When Blake had finished, he remarked shortly: "Must be
the same man. Let's see those shells."

Blake handed over the two empty cartridge shells.

"Thirty-eight," confirmed Knowles. "Same as were fired at Lafe before.
Kid and Chuckie showed me how a thirty-eight fitted the hole in Lafe's
silver flask. About where did the snake crawl down the hill?"

"Not far from here. He could not have gone any considerable distance
along the top or side. He was down and riding away when I reached the
crags, and I had not lost much time coming up the other side."

"It'll take an Indian to make out his tracks on this dry ground,"
remarked the cowman. "We'll try a look, though, at his hawss's hoof
prints. Just keep behind, if you don't mind."

He threw the reins over the head of his horse, and dismounted, to walk
slowly along the more level ground at the foot of the slope. Blake
followed, as he had requested, but scrutinizing the ground with a
gaze no less keenly observant than that of his companion.

"Mighty queer," said Knowles, after they had carried their examination
over a hundred yards. "Either he came down more slanting or else--"

"What do you make of this?" Blake interrupted, bending over a blurred
round print in the dust between two grass tufts.

"_Sho!_" exclaimed the cowman as he peered at the mark. "That's why,
of course."

"Indian shoes," said Blake.

"You've seen a thing or two. You're no tenderfoot," remarked Knowles.

"I have myself shrunk rawhide shoes on horses' hoofs when short of
iron shoes," Blake explained. "This would make a hard trail to run
down without hounds."

The cowman straightened and looked at his companion, his weather-beaten
face set in quiet resolve.

"I know what's better than hounds," he said. "This is one badman who
has played his game once too often. I'm going to run him down if it
takes all year and all the men in the county. There's a couple of Ute
bucks being held in the jail at Stockchute, to be tried for hunting
deer. I'm going to get the loan of them. The sheriff will turn out
with a posse, and we'll trail that snake, if it takes us clear over
into Utah."

"We'll have a fair chance to get him with Ute trackers," agreed
Blake.

Knowles shook his head. "Unless you're particular to come along, Mr.
Blake, I'd like you and Lafe to keep on with this survey. I've been
worrying over the chance of losing my range, till it's got on my
nerves."

"Certainly, Mr. Knowles. I shall go ahead in the morning, if Ashton is
able to rod. It will be best, I suppose, for my wife and Miss Chuckie
to remain close at the ranch until you make sure where this trail
leads."

"No; he's a snake, but the Indian shoes prove he's Western--He won't
strike at the ladies. Another thing, I'm going to give you Kid for
guard."

"He may prefer to join the posse."

"Of course he'll prefer that. You can count on Kid Gowan when it comes
to a man hunt. He'll stay, though, all right. I don't want Mrs. Blake
to think she has to stop indoors. With Kid on the lookout around your
camp, the ladies can feel free to come and go any time between sunup
and sundown, and you and Lafe can do what you want. There won't be any
more shooting, unless it's by Kid."

"Very well," said Blake. "I'm not anxious to play hide and seek with a
man who shoots and runs. When can we expect the rope and spikes?"

"That's another thing," replied Knowles. "Kid can be packing them and
your camp outfit up to the cañon while you and Lafe are running your
line of levels. He ought to be home by now. He was gone when the men
turned out this morning. Soon as I get back I'll send him up to camp
with you. He can bring along Rocket, to be ready for a chase,
providing we can find the brute. Queer about that hawss. Wanted to
ride him this morning. Found he'd got out and gone off the way he used
to before Lafe gentled him."

While talking, the two men had returned to the cowman's horse and
started around the hill to the camp. They found Isobel and Genevieve
and the baby all engaged in entertaining Ashton. Knowles briefly
congratulated the wounded man, and led his pony down to the pool for a
drink. Blake had seated himself beside his wife. She handed the baby
to him, and remarking that she also wished to drink, she followed
Knowles.

The cowman smiled at her reassuringly. "You're not afraid of any more
shooting, ma'am, are you?" he asked. "I've told your husband that Kid
is to come up to keep guard. He will stay right along, unless that
scoundrel is trailed down sooner."

"Then I shall have no fear, Mr. Knowles."

"You needn't, and you and Chuckie can come and go just the same as
ever. I don't want your visit spoiled. It's a great treat to all of us
to have you with us."

"And to my husband and myself to be your guests! I have quite fallen
in love with your daughter, Mr. Knowles. If you'll permit me to say
it, you are very fortunate to have so lovely and lovable a girl."

"Don't I know it, ma'am!"

"So beautiful--and her character as beautiful as her face. How you
must prize her!"

"Prize her!" repeated Knowles, his usual stolid face aglow with pride
and tenderness. "Why, ma'am, I couldn't hold her more in liking if she
was my own flesh and blood!"

Genevieve suddenly bent down to hide the intense emotion that had
struck the color from her face. Yet after a moment's pause, she spoke
in a composed, almost casual tone: "Then Chuckie is not your own
daughter?"

"Not in the way you mean. Hasn't she told you? I adopted her."

"I see," remarked Genevieve, with a show of polite interest. "But of
course, taking her when a young infant, she has always thought of you
as her own father."

"No--what I can't get over is that she feels that way, and I feel the
same to her, though I never saw or heard of her till she was going on
fourteen."

"Ah!" Genevieve could no longer suppress her agitation. "Then she
is--I'm sure that she must be--You said she came from the East, from
Chicago?"

"No, ma'am! I didn't say where she came from," curtly replied the
cowman.

The shock of his brusqueness restored the lady to her usual quiet
composure. Looking up into his face, she found it as blank and
impenetrable as a cement wall.

"You must pardon me," she murmured. "I myself am a Chicago girl, so
you must see how natural it is for me to hope that so sweet and
beautiful a girl as Chuckie came from my city."

"Chuckie is my daughter," stated Knowles in a flat tone.

"If you will kindly permit me to explain. My husband--"

"Chuckie is my daughter, legally adopted," repeated the cowman. "You
can see what she is like. If that is not enough, ma'am, I can't
prevent you from declining our hospitality, though we'd be mighty
sorry to have you and your husband leave."

The tears started into Genevieve's hazel eyes. "Mr. Knowles! how could
you think for a moment that I--that we--"

"Excuse me, ma'am!" he hastened to apologize. "I didn't mean to hurt
your feelings. You see, I'm kind of prejudiced along some lines. I've
been bred up to the Western idea that it isn't just etiquette to ask
about people's antecedents. Real Western, I mean. Our city folks are
nearly as bad as you Easterners over family trees. As if a child isn't
as much descended from its mother's maternal grandmother as from its
father's paternal grandfather!"

Genevieve smiled at this adroit diversion of the subject by the
seemingly simple Westerner, and replied: "My father's and mother's
parents were farm people. My husband worked his way up out of the
Chicago slums."

"He did?" The cowman could not conceal his astonishment. He looked
curiously into the lady's high-bred face. "Well, now, that sure is
something to be right proud of--not that I'd have exactly expected you
to think so. If you'll excuse me, ma'am, I'm more surprised at the way
you feel about it than that he was able to do such a big thing."

"No one is responsible for what he is born. But we are at least partly
entitled to the credit or discredit of what we become," she observed.

"That's good American doctrine, ma'am--Western American!" approved
Knowles.

"It should apply to women as well as men," she stated.

"It ought," he dryly replied, and he jerked up the head of his pawing
horse. "Here, you! I guess it's high time we were starting in, ma'am.
Kid may think he's to lay over at the ranch until morning. We want to
get him out here before dusk. I don't reckon there's any show of that
snake coming back tonight, but it's as well to be on the safe side."

He walked up the slope towards the others, unbuckling his cartridge
belt as he went.

"Sling on your saddle, honey," he called to his daughter.

The girl sprang up from beside Ashton and ran to fetch her own and
Genevieve's picketed ponies. Her father held out his belt and revolver
to the engineer.

"Here's my Colt's, Mr. Blake," he said. "I have another at home. You
won't need it, but I may as well leave it. We're going to lope in now,
so as to hustle Kid out to you before night. Just swap me that
yearling for my gun. It wouldn't seem natural not to be toting
something that can make a noise."

"Thomas never cries unless he needs attention," Genevieve sought to
defend her infant.

"Yes, ma'am. It's a good thing he knows that much already. You have to
make yourself heard to get what you want in the world generally, as
well as in hostleries and eating-houses."

Blake buckled on the cartridge belt, with its holstered revolver, and
went to help saddle the ponies. Ashton watched him and Isobel
narrowly. He was far from pleased with the familiarity of their talk
and manner towards one another. Twice the girl put her hand on Blake's
arm.

In marked contrast to this affectionate intimacy, Isobel was distrait
and hurried when she came to take leave of the wounded man. He had
risen to his feet, and she could not ignore his proffered hand. But
she avoided his gaze and quickly withdrew her fingers from his warm
clasp to hurry off.



CHAPTER XXI

MADONNA DOLOROSA


Blake was cooking supper when, shortly before sunset, Gowan drove up
to the waterhole, with a pony in lead behind the heavy wagon. Leaving
the wagon with the rope and other articles of his load on the far side
of the creek bed, he watered and picketed the horses, and came across
to the tent with his rifle and a roll of blankets.

"Howdy, Mr. Blake. Got here in time for supper, I see," he remarked as
he unburdened himself. "Met Mr. Knowles and the ladies down near the
ranch. They told me about the shooting." He faced about to stare at
Ashton's bandaged head. "They told me you came mighty near getting
yours. You shore are a lucky tenderfoot."

Ashton shrugged superciliously. "The worst of it is the additional
hole in my hat. I see you have a new one. Is that the latest style on
the range?"

"Stetson, brand A-1.," replied the puncher. "How does it strike you,
Mr. Blake?--and my new shirt? Having a dude puncher on our range kind
of stirred up my emulosity. They don't have real cowboy attire like
his at an ordinary shorthorn cow town like Stockchute--but I did the
best I could."

Blake made no response to this heavy badinage. He set the supper on
the chuck-box, and laconically said: "Come and get it."

"Might have known you've been on round-up," remarked Gowan, with an
insistent sociability oddly at variance with his usual taciturn
reserve. "According to Miss Chuckie, you're some rider, and according
to Mr. Knowles, you can shoot. I wouldn't mind hearing from you direct
about that shooting this morning."

Blake recounted the affair still more briefly than he had told it to
Knowles.

"That shore was a mighty close shave," commented the puncher. "But you
haven't said what the fellow looked like."

"He wore ordinary range clothes," replied Blake. "I couldn't see him
behind the rocks, and caught only a glimpse of him as he went around
the ridge. His horse was much the same build and color as Rocket."

The puncher stared at Ashton with his cold unblinking eyes. "You shore
picked out a Jim Dandy guide, Mr. Tenderfoot. According to this, it
looks mighty like he's gone and turned hawss thief. Mr. Knowles says
your Rocket hawss has vamoosed. If he's moving to Utah under your
ex-guide, it'll take some lively posse to head him. What d'you say,
Mr. Blake?"

"I think the man is apt soon to come to the end of his rope--after
dropping through a trap door," said the engineer.

Gowan looked at him between narrowed eyelids, and paused with upraised
coffee cup to reply: "A man that has shown the nerve this one has
won't let anyone get close enough to rope him."

"It will be either that or a bullet, before long," predicted Blake.
"The badman is getting to be rather out of date."

"Maybe a bullet," admitted Gowan. "Never any rope, though, for his
kind.--Guess I'll turn in. It's something of a drive over to
Stockchute and back with the wagon, and I got up early. You and Ashton
might go on watch until midnight, and turn me out for the rest of the
night."

"Very well," agreed Blake.

The puncher stretched out on his blankets under a tree, a few yards
from the tent. Ashton took the dishes down to sand-scour them at the
pool, while Blake saw that everything damageable was disposed safe
from the knife-like fangs of the coyotes.

"How about keeping watch?" asked Ashton, when he returned with the
cleansed dishes. "Shall I take first or second?"

"Neither," answered Blake. "You will need all the sleep and rest you
can get. Tomorrow may be a hard day. Turn in at once."

"If you insist," acquiesced Ashton. "I still am rather weak and
dizzy." He went to the tent and disappeared.

Blake took the lantern and strolled across to the wagon, to look at
the numerous articles brought by Gowan. He set the lantern over in the
wagon bed on top of what seemed to be a heap of empty oat sacks, while
he overhauled the load. It included three coils of rope of a hundred
feet each, a keg of railroad spikes, two dozen picket-pins, two heavy
hammers, a pick and shovel, and a crowbar.

The last three articles had not been ordered by Blake. The puncher had
brought them along, apparently with a hazy idea that the descent of
the cañon would be something on the order of mining. There were also
in the wagon two five-gallon kerosene cans to use in carrying water up
the mountain, a sack of oats, Gowan's saddle, and two packsaddles.

In shifting one of the packsaddles to get at the hammers, Blake
knocked it against the sack on which the lantern had been set. The
lantern suddenly fell over on its side. Blake reached in to pick it
up, and perceived that the sack was rising in a mound. He caught up
one of the hammers, and held it poised for a stroke. From the sack
came a muffled rattle. The hammer descended in a smashing blow.

The sack rose and fell as if something under it was squirming about
convulsively. But to Blake's surprise it did not fall aside and
disclose that which was making the violent movement. The squirming
lessened. He grasped an outer corner of the sack and jerked it upward.
It failed to flip into the air. The lower part sagged heavily. The
squirmer was inside and--the mouth of the sack was tied fast.

Blake looked at it thoughtfully. After some moments, he placed the
sack where it had lain at first, and upset the keg of spikes on top of
it. He then carefully examined Gowan's saddle; but it told him
nothing. He shook his head doubtfully, and returned to camp.

Going quietly around to Gowan, he set down the lantern close before
the puncher's face and stopped to light a cigar. Gowan stirred
restlessly and rolled half over, but did not open his eyes. Blake
smoked his cigar, extinguished the lantern, and quietly stretched out
on the edge of the sleeper's blankets. In a few moments he, too, was
asleep.

About two o'clock Gowan stirred and rolled over, pulling at his
blankets. Instantly Blake was wide awake. The puncher mumbled, drew
the blankets closer about him, and lay quiet. Blake went into the tent
and dozed on his own blankets until roused by the chill of dawn. He
went down for a plunge in the pool, and was dressed and back at the
fireplace, cooking breakfast, when Gowan started up out of his heavy
slumber.

"Yes, it's getting along about that time," Blake called to him
cheerfully. "You might turn out Ashton. He has made as good a night of
it as you have."

Gowan had been staring at the dawn, his lean jaw slack. As Blake
spoke, he snapped his mouth shut and came over to confront the
engineer. "You agreed to call me at midnight," he said.

"My apology!" politely replied Blake. "I know how you must feel about
it. But I hope you will excuse me. I saw that you, like Ashton, needed
a full night's sleep, and so did not disturb you."

The puncher looked away and muttered: "I'm responsible for you to Mr.
Knowles. He sent me here to guard you."

"That is true. Of course you will say it's owing to no fault of mine
that we have come through the night safely. Well, we have a big day's
work before us. May I ask you to call Ashton? Breakfast is ready."

At this the puncher sullenly went to rouse the sleeper. Ashton came
out rubbing his eyes; but after a dip in the pool, he declared himself
restored by his long sleep and ready for a day's work. During the
night his bandage had come loose. He would have tossed it away, but
Blake insisted upon re-dressing the wound. He did so with as much
skill and almost as much gentleness as had his wife.

When Blake and Ashton left the camp, the puncher was leading the
horses across to load their first packs. The two levelmen walked
briskly up the valley, carrying only enough food and water to last
themselves until evening, when Gowan was to have the camp moved to the
top of High Mesa.

Beginning from his bench-mark at the foot of the mountain, Blake
carried the level line slantingly up the ridge side. The work was slow
and tedious, since the telescope of the level could never be on a
horizontal line either higher or lower respectively than the top and
bottom of the thirteen-foot rod. This necessitated setting-up the
instrument every few feet during the steepest part of the ascent.

They saw nothing of Gowan, who had chosen a more roundabout but easier
trail. At midmorning, however, they were overtaken by Genevieve and
Isobel and Thomas Herbert Vincent Leslie Blake. Knowles had started
for Stockchute to seek the aid of the sheriff and his Indian
prisoners. The ladies divided the ascent into several stages, riding
ahead of the surveyors and resting in the shade of a rock or pine
until the men had passed them.

Near noon, when the levels had been carried up close to the top of
High Mesa, Gowan rode down to the party to inquire where the new camp
was to be pitched.

"I've brought up a lot this trip," he stated. "I can fetch the rest by
sundown, if I don't have to meander all over the mesa with these first
packs."

"Where did you leave the packhorses?" asked Blake.

"Up along the cañon where Ashton shot his yearling deer," answered the
puncher. "It's about half way between that gulch where you say you're
going down and the bend across from the head of Dry Fork Gulch."

"We'll camp there," decided Blake. "It is on the shortest trail to
that gulch, and you'll not have time to get your second load farther
before dark."

The puncher started back. But Isobel, who had come riding up with
Genevieve, called out to stop him: "Wait, Kid. It is almost noon. You
must take lunch with us."

"Can't leave those hawsses standing with the packs, Miss Chuckie, if
they're to make another trip today," he replied.

"Suppose you unload them and come back along the edge of the cañon?"
suggested Blake. "We shall knock off soon and all go over to give my
wife her first look at the cañon. We can eat lunch there together."

To this Gowan nodded a willing assent, and he jogged away, with a half
smile on his thin lips. But that which pleased him had precisely the
opposite effect on Ashton. He did not fancy sharing the companionship
and attention of Miss Knowles with the puncher. As this interference
with his happiness was due to Blake, he showed a petulant resentment
towards the engineer that won him the girl's sympathetic concern. She
attributed his fretfulness to his wound. Blake made the same mistake.

"You've done quite enough for the morning, Ashton, with that head of
yours," he said. "We're over the worst now, and can easily run on up
to the camp this afternoon. We shall knock off for a siesta."

"Needn't try to make out I'm a baby!" snapped Ashton.

"Leave your rod here," went on Blake, disregarding the other's
irascibility. "I'll take the level. It may enable us to see the bottom
of the cañon."

He started on up the slope beside his wife's pony. Ashton was somewhat
mollified when he saw Isobel linger for him to walk beside her horse.
She was carrying the baby, who, regardless of scenic attractions, had
fallen asleep during the long climb from the lower mesa. The sight of
the child clasped to her bosom awakened all that was highest in his
nature. Concern over his wound had sobered her usual gay vivacity to a
look of motherly tenderness.

"Do you know," he murmured during a pause in their conversation, "you
make me think of pictures of the Madonna!"

"Lafe!" she protested, blushing and as quickly paling. "You should not
say such a thing. It is lovely--a beautiful thing to tell me; but--but
I do not deserve it!"

"Madonna!--my Madonna!" he murmured in ardent adoration.

"Oh, please! when I've asked you not to!" she implored. "It is not
right! I--I am not!--" Tears glistened in her soft eyes. She bent over
to suppress a sob that might have awakened the sleeping infant.

Ashton gazed up at her, wonder and contrition mingling with his
deepening adoration. "Forgive me, Miss Chuckie! But I meant it--I feel
it! I never before felt this way towards any girl!... I know I have no
right to say anything now. I am a pennyless adventurer, a disgraced,
disinherited son, a mere cowpuncher apprentice; but if, by next
spring, I shall have--"

"Oh, see. They're getting such a long way ahead of us!" exclaimed the
girl, urging her pony to a faster gait.

The animal started forward with a suddenness that left Ashton behind.
He made no effort to regain his position beside the girl's stirrup.
Instead, he lagged farther and farther in the rear, his face crimson
with mortification and anger. As his chagrin deepened, his flush
became almost feverish and there was a suggestion of wildness in his
flashing eyes. It was as though his passion was intensifying some
injury to his brain caused by the concussion of the bullet on his
skull.



CHAPTER XXII

A REAL WOLF


When the loiterer came over the second ridge into view of the booming
chasm in the top of the plateau, he saw the others down near the
brink. The baby had been laid on a soft bed of pine needles, and Blake
was leading the ladies down to look over into the abyss, one on each
arm.

Ashton's chagrin flared into jealous hate. He felt certain that the
girl was quite capable of strolling along the extreme edge of the
precipice without a trace of giddiness. Yet now she was clinging to
Blake even more closely than was Genevieve. There was more than
apprehension in the clasp of her little brown hand on the engineer's
shoulder. Her cheek brushed his sleeve.

The anger of the onlooker was so intense that he did not see Gowan
riding towards him from the left. The puncher dismounted and came
forward, his cold gaze fixed on Ashton's face.

"So you're beginning to savvy it, too," he remarked.

Ashton confronted him, vainly attempting to mask his telltale look
and color with a show of hauteur. "I never discuss personal matters
with acquaintances of your stamp," he said.

"That's too bad," coolly deplored Gowan. "Maybe you've heard the
saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face."

"What do you mean?"

"If you want to go it alone, I can't stop you," replied the puncher.
"Needn't think I'm sucking around you for any favors or friendship. If
this was my range, I would run you off it so fast you'd reach
Stockchute with your tongue hanging out like a dog's. That's how much
I like you."

"The feeling is fully reciprocated, I assure you," rejoined Ashton.

"All right. Now what're we going to do about him?--each play a lone
hand, or make it pardners for this deal?"

"I--fail to understand," hesitated Ashton.

"No, you don't," jeeringly contradicted the puncher. "It's a
three-cornered fight. You see it now, even if you have been too big a
fool to see it before. We can settle ours after. But I'm free to own
up to it that you're a striped skunk if you won't work with me first
to get rid of him. Look at him now--and him married!"

Ashton's flush deepened to purple. "Married!--yes, married!" he choked
out.

"Right alongside his wife, too!" Gowan thrust the goad deeper. "You'd
think even that brand of skunk would have more decency. Not that his
wife is any friend of mine, like she is yours. But for a man with such
a wife and baby ... with Miss Chuckie! The--"

Gowan ended with a string of oaths so virulent that even Ashton's
half-mad anger was checked.

"You may be--er--I fear that we--Perhaps it's not so bad as it
appears!" he stammered.

"_Bah!_" disgustedly sneered the puncher, and he strode on ahead,
leaving Ashton torn between rage and doubt and terror of his own
furious jealousy.

The others continued to stand on a flat ledge that here formed the lip
of the cañon. Genevieve was trembling with awed delight. Her husband
and the girl appeared more calm, but they were drinking in the
grandeur of the tremendous gorge below them with no less intense
appreciation of its gloomy vastness.

Upstream, to their left, the precipices jutted so far out from each
wall of the cañon that they overlapped, a thousand or fifteen hundred
feet from the top. But downstream the upper part of the chasm flared
to a width that permitted the noonday sun to penetrate part way down
through the blue-black shadows.

"O-o-o-oh!" sighed Genevieve, for the tenth time, and she clung
tighter than ever to the strong arm of her husband. "Isn't it
fearfully, fearfully delightful? It makes the soles of my feet tingle
to look at it!"

"That tickly feeling!" exclaimed Isobel. "I often ride up here to the
cañon, I do so love to feel that way! Only with me it's like ants
crawling up and down my back."

"O-o-o-oh!" again sighed Genevieve. "It--it so overpowers one!"

"It's sure some cañon," admitted her husband. "That French artist Doré
ought to have seen it."

"If only we had a copy of Dante's Inferno to read here on the brink!"
she whispered.

"It always reminds me of Coleridge's poem," murmured Isobel, and she
quoted in an awed whisper:

                 Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
                 Through caverns measureless to man,
                 Down to the sunless sea.

"Fortunately for us, this is a cañon, not a string of measureless
caverns," said Blake. "It can be measured, one way or another. If I
had a transit, I could calculate the depth at any point where the
water shows--triangulate with a vertical angle. But it would cause a
long delay to send on for a transit. We shall first try to chain down
at that gulch break."

Genevieve shrank back from the verge of the precipice and drew the
others after her.

"Dear!" she exclaimed, "I did not dream it was so fearful. One has to
see to realize! You will not go down--promise me you will not go
down!"

"Now, now, little woman," reproached Blake. "What's become of my
partner?"

"But baby--? If you should leave him fatherless!"

"Better that than for him to have a father who is a quitter! Just
wait, Sweetheart. That break looks much less overwhelming than these
sheer cliffs. You know I shall not attempt anything foolhardy. If it
is not possible to get down without too great risk, I shall give it up
and send for a transit."

"Oh, will you?" exclaimed Isobel, hardly less apprehensive than his
wife. "Why not wait anyway until you can send for your transit?"

"Because I cannot triangulate the bottom within half a mile upstream
from where the tunnel would have to be located. That roar and the
wildness of the water wherever we can see it is proof that it is
flowing down a heavy grade. At the point where I triangulated it might
be above the level of Dry Mesa, and way below the mesa here at the
tunnel site."

"You could triangulate at the first place where the bottom can be
seen, beyond here," suggested Genevieve.

"Suppose it proved to be lower than Dry Mesa, wouldn't that still
leave us up in the air?" he asked. "Like this--"

He pulled out his notebook and drew a rough sketch.

[Transcriber's Note: an illustration showing "Elevation of bench-mark
at foot of chute in Dry Fork Gulch" appears in the text here.]

"I see, Dear," said his wife. "When do you plan to go down?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Can you wait until we come up from the ranch?"

"Yes. Mr. Knowles will no doubt be back by then. He can bring you out
early."

"We shall come early, anyway," said Isobel.

"Of course!" added Genevieve. She drew a deep breath. "I shall see the
place before you attempt to descend."

Her husband nodded reassuringly and looked around to where Gowan and
Ashton stood waiting, several yards from one another.

"About lunch time, isn't it?" he remarked. "Mr. Gowan will wish to be
starting soon to bring up his second load."

At the suggestion, the ladies hastened to spread out their own lunch
and the one brought by Blake. When called by Isobel, Gowan came
forward to join the party, with rather less than his usual reserve in
his speech and manner.

Ashton was the last to seat himself on the springy cushion of brown
pine needles, and he sat throughout the meal in moody silence. Blake
and the ladies attributed this to the fatigue of working through the
long hot morning while suffering from his unhealed wound. He repulsed
the sympathetic attentions of the Blakes. But he could not long
continue to resist the kindly concern of the girl. After lunch she
made him lie down in the shade while she bathed his wound with a good
part of the small supply of water remaining in the canteens.

Gowan had been asking questions about the work. Blake explained at
some length why he considered it necessary not only to descend into
the cañon but to carry the line of levels down along the bed of the
subterranean stream to this point opposite Dry Fork Gulch. When Isobel
drew apart with Ashton the puncher did not look at them, though his
eyes narrowed to slits and his mouth straightened.

"You shore have nerve to tackle it, Mr. Blake," he commented.
"Everything alive that I know of that's ever gone down into Deep Cañon
hasn't ever come up again, except it had wings."

"We'll prove that the rule has an exception," replied Blake, smiling
away the reawakened apprehension of his wife.

Gowan shook his head doubtfully, and strolled down the slope to peer
into the cañon. The level was directly in his path, set up firmly on
its tripod, about six feet from the brink. The puncher stopped beside
it to squint through the telescope.

"You'll have one--peach of a time seeing anything through this
contraption down there," he remarked. "I can't see even right here in
the sun."

"The telescope is out of focus," explained Blake. "Turn that screw on
the side." Gowan twisted a protruding thumbscrew. "Not that--the one
above it," directed Blake.

"Can't stop to fool now," replied the puncher. "I've got to hustle
along."

He started hastily around between the level and the precipice. The toe
of his boot struck hard against the iron toe of the outer tripod-leg.
He stumbled and sprawled forward on his hands and knees. Behind him
the instrument toppled over towards the brink.

Genevieve cried out in alarm at Gowan's fall. Her husband sprang to
the rescue--not of the puncher, but of the level. It had crashed down
with its head to the chasm, and was sliding out over the brink. Blake
barely caught it by the tip of one of the legs as it swung up for the
plunge. He drew it back and set it up to see what damage had been done
to the head. Gowan watched him, tight-lipped.

"This is luck!" exclaimed the engineer, after a swift examination.
"Nothing broken--only knocked out of adjustment. I can fix that in
half an hour. She struck with the telescope turned sideways. You must
have set the clamp screw."

The puncher's face darkened. "Wish the--infernal machine had gone
plumb down to hell!" he growled. "It came near tripping me over the
edge."

"My apology," said Blake. "I spraddled the tripod purposely to keep it
from being upset."

"Oh, Kid, you've hurt yourself," called Isobel, as the puncher began
to wrap a kerchief about his hand. "Come here and let me bandage it."

"No," he replied. "Two babies are enough for you to coddle at one
time. I've got to hit out."

He turned his back on Blake and hurried up to his horse. The engineer
followed as far as the nearest tree, where he set up the instrument in
the shade and began to adjust it.

"Good thing she has platinum crosshairs," he said to Ashton. "A fall
like that would have been certain to break the old-style spiderweb
hairs."

Ashton did not reply. He was absorbed in a murmured conversation with
Isobel. Blake completed the adjustments of the level and stretched out
beside his wife to play with his gurgling son. A half hour of this
completed the two hours that he had set apart for the noon rest. He
placed the baby back in his wife's lap and stood up to stretch his
powerful frame.

"How about it, Ashton?" he inquired. "Think you feel fit to rod this
afternoon? Don't hesitate to say no, if that's the right answer. I
expect my wife and Miss Chuckie, between them, can help me carry the
line as far as the camp."

"I can do it alone," interposed the girl. "Let them both stay here and
rest all afternoon."

"No, Miss Chuckie. I can and shall do my work," insisted Ashton,
springing up with unexpected briskness for one who had appeared so
fatigued. "It is you and Mrs. Blake who must stay here to rest--unless
you wish to keep us company."

"Might we not go to the new camp and put it in order?" suggested
Genevieve.

"What if that outlaw should come sneaking back?" objected Ashton. "It
seems to me you should keep with us."

"He would not trouble us," replied Isobel.

"Yet if he should? Anyway, Blake and I saw a wolf up here the other
day."

"A real wolf! Where?"

"Yes," answered Blake. "Over in the ravine the other side of the head
of Dry Fork Gulch."

"He may attack you," argued Ashton.

The girl laughed. "You're still a tenderfoot to think a wolf wouldn't
know better than that. Wish he didn't! It would mean the saving of a
half dozen calves this winter." She flashed out her long-barreled
automatic pistol and knocked a cone from the tree above Blake's head
with a swiftly aimed shot.

Blake caught the cone as it fell and looked at the bullet hole through
its center. "Unless that was an accident, I should call it some
shooting," he remarked.

"Accident!" she called back. "Stand sideways and see what happens to
your cigar."

"No, thanks. I'll take your word for it. Just lit this one, and I've
only a few left. By by, Tommy! Don't let the wolves eat mamma and the
poor little cowlady!"

He picked up the level and started off at a swinging stride. Ashton
followed several paces behind. His face was sullen and heavy, but in
their merriment over Blake's banter, the ladies failed to observe his
expression.

They rested for a while longer. Then, after venturing down for another
awed look into the abyss, they rode along, parallel with the
stupendous rift, to the place selected for the new camp. As Gowan had
brought up the tent in one of the first packs, the ladies pitched it
on the level top of the ridge.

"This is real camping!" delightedly exclaimed Genevieve, as they set
to gathering leafy twigs for bedding and dry branches for fuel. "How I
wish we could stay all night!"

"We can, if you wish," replied Isobel.

"Can we, really?"

"Our men often sleep out in the open, this time of year. We shall take
the tent for ourselves. Won't it be fun! But will Thomas be all
right?"

"I can manage with what I have until tomorrow afternoon."

"How long do you think they will be down in the cañon?" the girl
inquired.

Genevieve shuddered. "I wish I could tell! If only Tom finds that he
cannot get down at all, how thankful I shall be!"

"And--Lafe!" murmured the girl.

"It is possible that they may be unable to do it in one day," went on
Genevieve apprehensively--"Down, down into those dreadful depths, and
then along the river, all the way to where the tunnel is to be, and
back again, and then up the awful cliffs! Surely they cannot finish in
one day! Of course they will succeed--Tom can do anything, _anything_!
Yet how I dread the very thought--!"

"We must prepare to stay right here on High Mesa until they do
finish!" declared Isobel. "It will be impossible to go back to the
ranch tomorrow if they are still in that frightful place! Kid will
have to take the hawsses down to the waterhole. He shall go on home,
and tomorrow morning fetch us cream and eggs and everything you need.
They will have to be told at the ranch; and if Daddy has returned, he
will come up to help and be with us."

"You dear girl! The more I think of this terrible descent, the more I
dread it. I feel a presentiment that--But I must try to be brave and
not interfere with Tom's work! It will be a great comfort to have your
father with us."

"Daddy will surely come if he has returned. Isn't he kind and good? He
couldn't have done more to make me happy if he had been my own real
father!"

Genevieve smiled into the girl's glowing face. "Yes, dear. Yet I am
far from surprised, since _you_ are the daughter he wished to make
happy. I was more surprised to have him tell me you were adopted. You
have never said a word about it."

"I--you see, I did not happen to," confusedly murmured the girl.

"Chuckie Knowles is not your real name," Genevieve gently reproached
her.

"No, it is the pet name Daddy gave me. My real one is--Isobel."

"Isobel--?"

"Yes. Daddy's sister, in Denver, always calls me that. But here on the
ranch--"

"Isobel--?" repeated Genevieve, with a rising inflection.

The color ebbed from the girl's face, but she answered steadily:
"Chuckie--Isobel--Knowles. I am Daddy's daughter. I have no other
father."

"Is-o-bel--Is-o-bel," Genevieve intoned the name musically. "It has a
beautiful sound. I had a friend at school--Isabella--but we always
called her Belle."

The girl suddenly faced away from her companion, and darted to meet
Blake and Ashton, who were bringing the line of levels up over the
ridge.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE TEMPTATION


When the ladies explained their plans for remaining in camp on High
Mesa, Blake gave a ready assent.

"All right, Jenny. It'll be something like old times. Can't scare you
up any lions or fever, leopards or cyclones; but you may see that
wolf."

"I should welcome all savage Africa if it would rid us of this awful
cañon!" replied his wife.

"Won't you please give it up?" begged Isobel. "I am to blame for your
coming here. If anything should happen to you, I--I could never
forgive myself--never!"

Blake looked at the two lovely, anxious faces before him, and smiled
gravely. "There you go again, and you have yet to see that gulch. But
even if you find that it looks dangerous, you wouldn't want me to let
a little risk interfere with my work, would you? Think of the fools
who climb the highest and steepest mountains just for sport. I am
going down there because it is necessary."

"But is it?" the girl half sobbed.

"Someone must do it, sooner or later," he replied, and he took his
wife's hand in his big palm. "Come, little woman, speak up. Do you
want your husband to be a shirker and quitter?"

"Of course not, Tom. Yet one should be reasonable."

"I have had enough experience in climbing to know not to attempt the
impossible, Sweetheart," he assured her. "The worst looking places are
not always the most dangerous. I promise you to take only reasonable
risks."

"Have we time enough to look at the place this afternoon?" she
inquired.

Blake glanced at the sun, and nodded. "The riding is good. We can get
back long before dark. Ashton, you had better stretch out and rest."

"No, I shall go with you," replied Ashton, his lips set in as firm
lines as Blake's.

"You cannot go, Lafe, unless you agree to ride my pony," said Isobel.

"I'm not going to have Gowan call me a baby again," he objected.

"You will need all your strength tomorrow," predicted Blake.

"You must ride," insisted Isobel.

"Very well--to please you," he agreed. "We shall take turns."

Blake again looked at the sun. "As long as we are going, we may as
well carry forward the line of levels. We can take long turns nearly
all the way, so there will be little delay."

"And I shall rod for you!" delightedly exclaimed Isobel.

"Only part of the time," qualified Ashton with a sharpness that the
others attributed to his zeal to serve her.

He filled his canteen from one of the cans of water brought up by
Gowan, and rinsed out the mouths and nostrils of the thirsty ponies.
This done, he and Genevieve mounted, and the party started off on a
route parallel with the cañon, which here trended back away from the
edge of the plateau.

They soon came to where the surface of the mesa was slashed with
gulleys and ravines, all running down into the cañon. Blake swung away
from the cañon, in order to head the worst of these ravines or to
cross them where they were less precipitous. Presently, however, he
struck in again towards the great rift along the flank of a high
barren ridge. At last he led over the ridge and down to the side of a
very large ravine where it pitched into the cañon at an angle little
less steep than the descent of Dry Fork Gulch.

The line of levels, as Blake had foretold, had been an easy one to
run. It was stopped on the corner of a shelf of rock that jutted out
above the gorge. Having provided a soft nest for the baby, the four
went out on the shelf and peered down the dizzy slope into the black
shadows of the depths.

The two ladies drew back shuddering. Blake looked about at them and
seeing their troubled faces, sought to quiet their dread.

"You have not looked close enough," he said. "With spikes and ropes,
the worst of this will be comparatively easy. There are ledges and
crevices all the way down. You cannot see the lower half. When I was
here with Gowan and Mr. Knowles, the sun was shining to the bottom.
The lower half of the descent is much less steep than this you see."

Genevieve smiled trustfully. "Oh, if you say it is safe, Tom!"

"We shall take down the rope and all the spikes we can carry," he
explained in further reassurance. "At the worst places a spike and a
piece of the rope will not only let us down safely, but can be left
for our ascent."

"Then it will be all right!" sighed Isobel.

"For him--yes!" broke in Ashton, his voice harsh and strained. He was
cringing back, white-faced, from the edge of the gulch.

"Why, Lafe!" exclaimed the girl. "If Tom--Mr. Blake goes down, surely
you can't mean that you--"

"He's used to climbing--I'm not!" Ashton sought to excuse himself.

"Oh, very well," she said. "Of course it is not right to ask you to do
it if you suffer from vertigo. I shall ask Kid to take your place. If
he refuses, Daddy will do it."

"That may mean delay," remarked Blake. "If that scoundrel really is
headed for Utah, your father may not be back for several days. Yet he
asked me to settle this matter as soon as possible."

"Then, if Kid will not go down with you, I shall," declared the girl,
her blue eyes flashing.

"No, no indeed, dear!" protested Genevieve. "It is simply impossible!
You shall not do it!"

"I shall, unless Kid--"

"You shall not ask him!" interposed Ashton, his pale face suddenly
flushing a hot red. "I am going down!"

"You will, Lafayette?" cried Genevieve. "That is very brave and--and
kind of you!"

"But if you have no experience in climbing?" objected Isobel in a tone
that transmuted the young man's angry flush into a glow of delight.

"Don't inexperienced climbers go up the Alps with guides?" he
nonchalantly replied. "I can trust Blake to get me safe to the bottom.
He will need me in his business."

"Good for you, Lafe!" commended Blake.

It was the first time that he had ever addressed Ashton so familiarly.
He accompanied it with the proffer of his hand. But Ashton did not
look at him. He was basking in the frankly admiring gaze of Miss
Knowles.

The party returned in the same manner that they had come out, for
Isobel firmly refused to permit Ashton to walk. Blake allowed her to
set the pace, and she chose such a rapid one that they reached camp a
full half hour before sunset.

A few minutes later, as they were sitting down to a hastily prepared
supper, Gowan appeared with the second load from the lower camp. Blake
and Ashton sprang up to loosen the packs of the sweating, panting
horses. The puncher swung down from his saddle, not to assist them,
but to remonstrate with Isobel.

"Been expecting to meet you, all the way up, Miss Chuckie," he said.
"Ain't you staying too late? You won't get home before long after
dark."

"Mrs. Blake and I are not going down tonight, Kid," replied the girl,
and she explained the change of plans.

Gowan listened attentively, though without commenting either by look
or word. When she had quite finished, he asked a single question:
"Think your Daddy won't mind, Miss Chuckie?"

"He will understand that we simply can't leave here until Lafe
and--Mr. Blake are safe up out of the cañon."

"All right. You're the boss," he acquiesced. "Just write out a list
of what you want. I'll take all the hawsses down to the waterhole, and
go on to the ranch. You can look for me back at sunup. The moon rises
between three and four."

"Genevieve, will you make out the list? Sit down and eat, Kid."

"Well, just a snack, Miss Chuckie. Wouldn't stop for that if the
hawsses didn't know the trail well enough to go down in the dark."

"Have you seen any sign of the murderer?" inquired Ashton.

Gowan drained the cup of scalding hot coffee handed to him by Isobel,
and answered jeeringly: "Don't worry, Tenderfoot. He won't try to get
you tonight. If he came back today, he saw me around. If he comes back
tonight, he won't think of climbing High Mesa to look for you."

Blake came to the puncher with a list written by himself and his wife
on a leaf from his fieldbook. Gowan folded it in his hatband, washed
down the last mouthful of bread and ham that he had been bolting, and
went to shift his saddle to Isobel's pony, the youngest and freshest
of the horses. In two minutes he was riding away down the ridge,
willingly followed by the four other horses. They knew as well as he
that they were returning to the waterhole.

As the campers again sat down to their supper Isobel paused with the
coffeepot upraised. "Genevieve," she inquired, "did you put cream on
the list?"

"Why, no, my dear. It did not occur to me."

"Nor may it to Yuki. He will be sure to send eggs and butter, but
unless he thinks to save tonight's cream--I'll run and tell Kid."

Ashton sprang up ahead of her. "I'll catch him," he said, and sprinted
down the ridge.

Racing around a thicket of scrub oak, he caught sight of Gowan more
than an eighth of a mile ahead. He whistled repeatedly. At last Gowan
twisted about in the saddle, and drew rein. He did not turn back, but
made Ashton come all the way to him.

"Well, what's wanted?" he demanded.

"Cream," panted Ashton. "Miss Chuckie says--tell Yuki."

"Shore pop, I'll bring all there is," replied Gowan. Ashton started
back. "Hold on," said the puncher. "I want to say something to you,
and here's the chance."

"What is it?"

"About him. I want you to keep a mighty close watch tonight."

"But you said that the murderer would not--"

"_Bah!_ What does he count in this deal? It's this engineer. I've been
chewing it over all afternoon. Miss Chuckie is as innocent and
trusting as a lamb, spite of her winterings in Denver, and she's
plumb locoed over him, reading so much about him in the reports."

"Still, it does not necessarily follow--"

"Don't it, though!" broke in the puncher. "Guess you didn't find it
any funnier than I did seeing her hanging onto his shoulder."

"Curse him!" cried Ashton, his jealousy flaring at the remembrance.

"Now you're talking!" approved Gowan. "That shows you like her like I
do. You're not going to stand for her losing her fortune."

"Her fortune?"

"By his flooding us off our range."

"Ah--as for that, I have been thinking it over. She told me Mr.
Knowles owns five sections. If water is put on them--Western Colorado
fruit lands are very valuable, you know."

"That's a lie. Water can't make five sections worth a range
like ours. But supposing it could--" the puncher leaned towards
Ashton, his eyes glaring with the cold malignancy of a striking
rattlesnake's--"supposing it could, how about us letting her
lose her good name?"

"Good God!" gasped Ashton. "It can't come to that!"

"Can't it? can't it? Where's your eyes? And him a married man! The--"
Gowan cursed horribly.

"You really believe it!" cried Ashton, convinced by the other's
outburst.

"Believe it? I know it!" declared Gowan. "If you thought half as much
of her as I do--"

"I do!--not half, but a hundred times more!"

"Yes, you do?"

"I swear it! I'd do anything for her!"

"Except save her from him."

"No, no! How can I? Tell me how!"

The puncher bent nearer to the half-frenzied man. "You're going down
that gulch with him. Suppose a spike gets knocked out or a rope breaks
or a loose rock gets pushed over?"

"God!" cried Ashton, putting his hands over his eyes. "That would be
murder!"

"_Bah!_ You'd make a dog sick! Willing to do anything for her--except
save her from him! And nothing to it but just an accident that's just
as like as not to happen anyway."

"But--murder!" shudderingly muttered Ashton.

"Murder a skunk," sneered Gowan. "If saving her from him isn't a case
of justifiable homicide, what is? Don't you get the idea? Just a
likely accident, down there where nobody can see."

Ashton dropped his hands, half clenched, to his sides. Beads of cold
sweat were gathering and running down his drawn face.

"I can't!" he whispered. "I--I can't!"

"Not if I agree to get out of the way and give you clear running?"
tempted Gowan.

"You would?"

"Yes. You see how much I like her. You rid her of him, and I'll let
you have her for doing it."

Ashton shuddered.

"Think it over--and watch him mighty close tonight," advised the
tempter.

A red flush leaped into Ashton's face. Gowan struck his spurs into his
horse's flank and loped away.

Ashton stood motionless. The puncher disappeared down the mountain
side. The twilight faded and darkness closed down about the tortured
man. He stood there motionless, his convulsed face alternately
flushing and paling, his eyes now clouding, now burning with rage and
hate.

When at last he returned to the camp he kept beyond the circle of
firelight. Hurriedly he rolled up in his blankets for the night,
muttering something about his head and his need of rest for the next
day's work. The others accepted the explanation without question. They
formed a cheerful domestic group about the fire from which he was shut
out by his passion.

The ladies withdrew into the tent at an early hour. Blake strolled
around the camp until after nine o'clock, but finally came with his
blankets and companionably rolled up near Ashton. He was soon fast
asleep. But Ashton lay tossing until after midnight. Weariness at
last weighed down the lids of his hot eyes and numbed his tortured
brain. He sank into a feverish sleep haunted with evil dreams.



CHAPTER XXIV

BLIND LOVE


At sunrise the harassed dreamer awoke to find Gowan gazing down at him
somberly.

"You--you here?" he exclaimed, starting up on his elbow. "What is--" He
checked himself and muttered brokenly, "I've been dreaming--horrible
nightmares."

"He's down there overhauling his outfit," said Gowan. "Hope you've
thought the matter over."

"My answer must be the same. I cannot do it, I cannot!" replied
Ashton. He spoke hurriedly, as if afraid to linger on the thought.

"You can't--not to save her and have me give her to you?" asked
Gowan.

Ashton clenched his hands and bent over in an agony of doubt and
indecision.

"You devil!" he groaned.

"What! Because I'm willing to give her up, in order to see her
saved?"

"Why don't you shoot him, if you're so anxious?" queried Ashton.

"And hang for it," retorted the puncher. "You can do it with an
accident, and no risk. Anyway, that'll make things easier for his
wife--to have him meet a natural death. Won't be anything said about
why he was taken off. She hasn't begun to suspect what's going on
between him and--"

Gowan paused, looked at the tent, and concluded: "I've done my part. I
won't say any more. But just you remember what I've told you. You
won't run any risk. Mr. Knowles hasn't come back yet. There'll be only
them and me along, and we won't be able to see you do it. Just
remember what it will mean to her--just remember that--when you get
him where a shove or a loosened spike--Savvy?"

He went to loosen the diamond hitch of the packs that he had brought
with him from the ranch. Ashton sank back and lay brooding until the
girl came from the tent and called to inquire how he felt. Too
wretched to care about his appearance, he rose and went over to her.

"Oh!" she exclaimed at sight of his haggard face. "You are ill!"

"Only an attack of indigestion and loss of sleep--something I often
have," he lied. "A cup of coffee will set me up. Don't worry. I'm
strong--head doesn't bother me at all this morning, except a numb
feeling inside."

"I shall dress the wound at once, while the coffee is boiling," she
replied.

He would have objected. She silenced him with a look that acted on his
chafed spirit like oil upon a burn. Her kind, almost tender voice and
the soft touch of her fingers on his head soothed his anguish and
seemed to counteract the poison instilled by Gowan. He began to doubt
the puncher and the witness of his own eyes.

When Blake and his wife came to breakfast, Ashton was so cheerful that
they hardly noticed the traces of haggardness that yet lingered in his
face. Blake at once centered the attention of all by explaining his
plans for the exploration of the cañon. In addition to the surveyor's
chain, a hammer, and the rope and spikes,--which were to be used only
in making the descent,--he and Ashton were to carry the level and rod
and a quantity of food. At the suggestion of Isobel, he agreed to take
her father's revolver and fire it at intervals, on the chance that the
watchers above might see the flash of the shots and so be able to
follow the progress of the explorers down in the depths.

Genevieve quickly thought out signals to be given in response. If at
night, a torch was to be cast down into the chasm; if in the daytime,
a white flag, made of a sheet sent by Yuki, was to be waved out over
the brink. As the explorers might become confused in the gloom of the
cañon bottom, the point of the bend opposite Dry Fork Gulch was to be
marked by a beacon fire built on the verge of the cañon wall.

Blake had already arranged everything that he and Ashton were to take
down with them. Immediately after breakfast the outfit was fastened on
the packhorses, together with food, water and blankets for those who
were to remain on the heights. The ladies were determined to keep
above the explorers at all points where the rim of the cañon could be
approached. Gowan was to fetch and carry for them and take the horses
down to the pool for water at night.

Within half an hour after breakfast the party was jogging away from
camp, fully equipped for the great undertaking. Gowan was afoot. His
horse, as well as the regular pack animals, was heavily loaded with
stores. He walked with Isobel, who had insisted that Ashton should
ride her pony. Blake strode along at his wife's stirrup, carrying his
son in a clasp as tender as it was strong.

The engineer was the only cheerful member of the party. Even Thomas
Herbert, that best tempered of babies, was peevish and fretful. He was
instinctively reflexing the suppressed nervousness and anxiety of his
mother. Gowan and Ashton were as gloomy in look and speech as the
shadowy depths of the cañon. Isobel bravely sought to respond to
Blake's confidence in the favorable outcome of the survey; but her
smile, like Genevieve's, was forced and her eyes were troubled.

They reached the point of attack as the rays of the morning sun were
beginning to strike down into the side gorge. This was as Blake had
planned. He at once began to direct the preparations for the descent,
himself doing the lion's share of the work.

A long detour to a point higher up the ravine offered an easy descent
of its bottom to the place where it pitched steeply into the cañon.
Blake preferred to take a short cut down the almost vertical side of
the gulch. The three pieces of rope, each a hundred feet long, were
knotted together and used to lower a grass-padded package containing
all the equipment of the explorers except the level. The bundle was
lodged on a broad shelf of rock, over two hundred and fifty feet
down.

"Our first measurement," remarked Blake, as he subtracted from three
hundred feet the length of the line left above the edge of the cliff.
He jotted down the remainder in his notebook, and nodded to Ashton,
who, with Gowan and Isobel, was holding the end of the rope. "You see
why I had Mr. Gowan bring gloves and chaps and your leggins. We will
make the line fast around that rock, and follow our outfit."

Ashton stared, slack jawed. "Really, you cannot mean--?"

"Yes. Why not?" asked Blake. "There's nothing to a slide like this
except the look of it."

"Oh, Tom!" breathlessly cried Genevieve. "Are you sure--quite sure!"

"Sure I'm sure, little woman," he replied. "There's not the slightest
danger. This is a new manila rope, and the package, with all those
spikes in it, weighs as much as I do. That gives us a sure test."

"I might have known!" she sighed her relief.

"Still it does look a bit stiff for a start-off," he admitted. "If
Lafe prefers, he can go around and come down the ravine bed. I shall
slide the line and be getting the outfit in shape for shooting the
chutes."

"How about the rope?" asked Isobel.

"You are to drop it to me as soon as I get down and stand from under,"
directed Blake. He examined with minute care the loop and knot with
which Gowan and Isobel had made the rope fast around the point of
rock. Having satisfied himself that the knot was perfectly secure, he
turned to his wife and opened his arms. "Now, Sweetheart! Wish us good
luck and a quick journey!"

Gowan and Ashton drew back and looked away as Genevieve flung herself
on her husband's broad chest, unable to restrain her tears.

"Now, now, little woman," he soothed, patting her shoulder. "There's
nothing to be afraid of, and you know it."

"If--if only we could see you down there!" she sobbed.

"You will, part of the time, with your glasses. And you'll be sure to
see the flash of some of my shots. That's all that I'm worrying
about--you'll be skirting along the cañon rim. Promise me you'll not
go near the edge except where the footing is perfectly safe."

"Yes, Dear. I shall have Thomas to remind me to be careful. But you?"

"I shall have the thought of you both to keep me from being rash.
Remember that."

"You will not be rash, I know," she answered, smiling up at him
bravely. "You will go and come back to us soon. Now kiss me and
Thomas. I shall not detain you from your work."

"Spoken like my partner," he quietly praised her.

Both by tone and manner he was plainly seeking to ease the parting to
the calmness of an ordinary farewell. His wife responded to this,
outwardly at least. Not so Isobel. From the moment he had turned to
Genevieve, the girl had betrayed a rapidly increasing agitation.

He went to kiss his baby, who had fallen asleep during the last half
mile of the trip and lay sprawled in the shade of a bowlder. As he
came back, Genevieve lingered beside the child, as if half fearful of
watching her husband begin his dizzy descent of the rope.

Isobel was standing close to the verge, her bosom heaving with
quick-drawn breaths, her excited face flushing and paling in rapid
alternation. Blake had pulled on his left glove, but had kept his
right hand bare for her. As he held it out he looked up from the taut
rope at his feet and saw her excessively agitated face.

[Illustration: "You have something to tell me--your voice--your eyes--"]

"Why, Miss Chuckie!" he remonstrated, "you're not going to break down
now. You see how Jenny takes it. There's nothing to fear."

"Oh, but, Tom!" she panted, "you--you don't understand! you don't
know! It's not merely the danger! It's the dreadful thought that if
you--if you should not--come back--and I hadn't told you!"

"Told me?" he echoed in hushed wonderment as her anguished soul looked
out at him through her wide eyes and he sensed the first vague
foreshadowing of the truth. "You have something to tell me--your
voice!--your eyes!--"

"You see it! You know me!" she gasped, and she flung herself into his
arms. Straining herself to him in half frantic ecstasy, she murmured
in a broken whisper: "Yes! I am--am Belle! It is wicked and selfish to
tell you; but to have you go down there without first--I could not
bear it! Yet I--I shall not drag you down--disgrace you. Never that!
I'll go away!... Oh, Tom! dear Tom!"

He had stood dumfounded by the revelation of her identity. At first he
could not speak; hardly could he think. His eyes stared into hers with
a dazed look. But before she could finish her impassioned declaration
of self-abnegation he roused from his bewilderment, and his great
arms closed about her quivering body. He crushed her to him and
pressed his lips upon her white forehead.

"Belle!--poor little Belle!... But why? Tell me why? All this time,
and you never showed by a single word or look!"

"I did!" she sought to defend herself from the tender reproach. "I
did, but I--I was afraid to tell."

"Afraid?"

The girl's face flamed scarlet with shame. She sought to draw away
from him. "Let me go, Tom! oh, please, let me go! I am a selfish,
wicked girl! I have done it! I have done it! Now there is no help for
it! She must be told--all!"

"All?" he questioned.

"Yes, all, Tom! I cannot deny Mary! She saved me! I believe she is in
Heaven. She could not help doing what she did. She could not help it,
Tom--and she saved me! I must give you up--go away; but I can never,
never deny my sister!"

Blake swung half around with the quivering girl, and looked over her
downbent head at his wife. Genevieve stood almost within arm's-length
of them. He met her gaze, and immediately pushed the girl out towards
her.

"Listen, Belle," he said. "It is all right. Here is Jenny waiting for
you. She understands."

Gowan, watching rigid and tense-lipped, with his hand clenched on the
hilt of his half-drawn Colt's, was astonished to see Mrs. Blake step
forward and clasp Isobel in her arms. But Ashton did not see the
strange act that checked the puncher's vengeful shot. While the girl
was yet clinging to Blake, he had turned and fled along the edge of
the ravine, for the moment stark mad with rage and despair.

He rushed off without a cry, and the others were themselves far too
surcharged with emotion to heed his going until he had disappeared
around a turn in the ravine. When at last, almost spent with exertion,
he staggered up a ridge to glare back at those from whom he had fled,
his bloodshot eyes could perceive only three figures on the brink of
the gorge. They were kneeling to look over into the ravine.

His thoughts were still in a wild whirl, but the heat of his mad rage
had passed and left him in a cold fury. He instantly comprehended that
Blake had swung over the edge and was descending the rope down the
almost sheer face of the ravine wall.

Now was the time! A touch of a knife-edge to the rope, and the girl
would be saved. Would Gowan think of it?... Of course he would
think of it. But he would not do it. He would leave the deed to be
done by the man to whom he had relinquished Miss Chuckie. It was
for that man to save her--to destroy the tempter and break the
spell of fascination that was drawing her over the brink of a pit
far deeper than any earthly cañon. He, Lafayette Ashton--not
Gowan--was the man. He must save her--down there in the depths, where
no eye could see.

[Transcriber's Note: Map of High Mesa and Dry Mesa with place of
descent and other landmarks shown appears here.]



CHAPTER XXV

THE DESCENT INTO HELL


Dangling like a spider on its thread, with a twist of the rope
around one of his legs, Blake had gone down into the ravine, hand
under hand, with the agility of a sailor. The tough leather of his
chapareras prevented the rope from chafing the leg around which it
slipped, and he managed with his free foot to fend himself off from
the sharp-cornered ledges of the cliff side. In this he was less
concerned for himself than for his level, which he carried in a sling,
high up between his shoulders.

He was soon safe at the lower end of the rope, on the shelf beside the
bundled outfit. He waved his hat to the down-peering watchers, and
climbed a few yards up the ravine, to creep in under an overhanging
rock. A few moments later the loosened rope came sliding down the
steep descent, the last length whipping from ledge to ledge with a
velocity that made it hiss through the air.

Blake was not disturbed by this proof of the cumulative speed of
falling bodies. He came down and coolly set about his preparations for
the descent of the gorge bottom. He unlashed the bundle and divided
its contents. This done, he took a vertical measurement by going out
towards the cañon along a horizontal shelf on the side wall of the
gorge, until he could drop his surveying chain down the sheer
precipice to a shelf almost a hundred feet below him.

Unaware of Ashton's mistake and furious flight, the engineer was
proceeding with his work in the expectation that he would soon be
joined by his assistant. He was not disappointed. As he returned along
the shelf, after entering the measurement in his notebook, Ashton came
bounding and scrambling down the ravine bottom at reckless speed. He
fetched up on the verge of the break, purple-faced and panting. His
mouth twitched nervously and there was a wild look in his dark eyes.
But Blake attributed all to the excitement and exertion of the
headlong rush down the ravine.

"No need for you to have hurried so, Lafe," he said. "I suppose you
had to go farther around than I thought would be necessary. But I'd
rather you had kept me waiting an hour than for you to have chanced
spraining an ankle."

"Yes, you need me in your business!" scoffed Ashton.

"Your employer's business," rejoined the engineer. He straightened up
from the packs that he was lashing together and gazed gravely at his
scowling assistant. "See here, Mr. Ashton, this is no time for you to
raise a row. We shall have quite enough else to think about from now
on, until we are up again out of the cañon."

"I've enough to think about--and more!" muttered Ashton.

"Understand? I'm not asking anything of you for myself," said Blake.
"You are doing this survey for your employer."

"I'm here because of _her_!" retorted the younger man. "I'm here to
make it certain that no harm is to come to _her_!"

Blake smiled. "Good for you! I hardly thought you were here for the
fun of it. You are going to prove to us that you have the makings.
We're both working for her, Lafe. I don't mind telling you now that I
am planning to do something big for her." He looked up the ravine
wall, his eyes aglow with tenderness. "Belle! dear little Belle! To
think that after all these years--"

"Shut up!" cried Ashton. "Stop that! stop it, and get to work! I know
what you're planning to do! Don't talk to me!"

Blake stared in astonishment. "Didn't think you were so sore over that
old affair. I told you I had nothing to do about your father's--"

"Don't talk to me! don't talk to me!" frantically cried Ashton. "You
ruined me! Now her!"

"Lord! If you're as sore as all that!" rejoined Blake, his eyes
hardening. "Look here, Mr. Ashton, we'll settle this when we get up
on top again. Meantime, I shall do my work, and I shall see to it that
you do yours. Understand?"

"Get busy, then! I shall do _my_ work!" snarled Ashton.

Blake pointed to one of the three bundles that he had tied together.
"There's half the grub, the tripod and the rod. I can manage the rest.
I've dropped a measurement to the foot of the first incline."

He swung one of the other bundles on his back, under the level. The
third, which was made up of railroad spikes and picket-pins, he sent
rolling down the steep slope, tied to one end of the rope. He had
driven a spike into a crevice of the rock. Hooking the other end of
the rope over its head with an open loop, he grasped the line and
started to walk down the gorge bottom. As he descended he dragged the
loose lengths of rope after him.

Ashton stood rigid, staring at the spike and loop. If the loop should
slip or the spike pull out, he need only climb back out of the
ravine--to her. But Blake's work was not the kind to slip or pull out.
The watcher looked at the powerful figure backing rapidly down that
roof-like pitch. One of the toes of the level tripod under the taut
loop would easily pry the rope off the spike-head. He turned his pack
around to get at the tripod--and paused to look upwards at the three
tiny faces peering down over the brink of the cliff.

He slung the pack over his shoulder and grasped the rope to follow his
leader, who had come to the narrow shelf from which another
measurement must be taken. He made the descent no less rapidly and
easily than had the engineer. He was naturally agile, and now he was
too full of his purpose to have any thought of vertigo. Yet quickly as
he followed, when he reached the shelf he found that Blake had already
lowered the bundle of spikes over the cliff below and was reënforcing
with a spike a picket-pin that he had driven deep into a crevice.

"Drop over the chain at that point," curtly ordered the engineer.
"Think you can climb back up this slope without the rope?"

"Yes," answered Ashton, still more curtly.

Blake lifted the line and sent up it a wave that carried to the upper
end and flipped the loop from the spike-head. He jerked the freed end
down to him and knotted it securely to the picket-pin, while Ashton
was making the third vertical measurement. He then lowered everything
except the level in loops of the line, and wrapped a strip of canvas
around the line where it bent over the sharp edge of the cliff.

Ashton laconically reported the measurement. Blake noted it in his
book, and promptly swung himself out over the edge of the cliff.
Again his assistant looked at the fastening of the rope; again he
looked upwards at the three tiny down-peering faces; and again he
followed his leader. The sun was glaring directly down into the gorge.
Later they would descend into the shadows where no eye could perceive
from above the loosening of the rope.

Blake cut off the line at the foot of the cliff and left it dangling.
They would require it for their ascent. Another Titan step took fifty
feet more of the rope.

There followed a series of steep pitches, which they descended like
the first, unlooping the rope from spike-head after spike-head. The
only real difficulty of this part of the descent was the tedious task
of carrying the vertical measurement down the slopes at places where
even Blake could not find footing to climb out horizontally on either
wall of the gorge to obtain a clear drop.

Always, as they descended, the engineer scanned the rocks both above
and below, calculating where the gorge bottom could be reascended
without a line. Whenever he considered the incline too smooth or too
steep for safe footing, he drove in spikes near enough together to be
successively lassoed from below with a length of line.

Had not the nature and condition of the rock provided frequent faults
and crevices that permitted the driving of spikes, the descent must
soon have become impracticable. But the engineer invariably found
some chink in which to hammer a spike with his powerful blows. As,
time after time, he overcame difficulties so great that his companion
could perceive no possible solution, Ashton began to feel himself
struggling against a feeling of reluctant admiration.

All his hate could not blind him to the extraordinary mental and
physical efficiency displayed by the engineer. Never once did the
steely muscles permit a slip or false step, never once did the cool
brain miscalculate the next most advantageous movement.

They were now so deep that Blake had to shout his infrequent
directions, to be heard above the booming reverberations of the cañon.
Half way down they came to a forty-foot cliff. Blake made his
preparations, and swung over the edge. Here was an opportunity. Ashton
instantly bent over the knot of the rope.

Close before his eyes he saw the clearly outlined shadow of his head.
He hesitated and straightened on his knees to stare up at the top of
the gorge. He could no longer discern the three down-peering faces,
but he knew that they were still there. And the sunrays still pierced
down to him between the walls of the gorge. The shadows were farther
down, in the lower depths. He must follow and wait.

When he slid to the foot of the cliff, Blake silently cut off the
rope. There was still nearly a hundred and fifty feet left for them
to use below. But they went down more than a thousand feet before they
again had need of it. As Blake had foretold, the lower half of the
descent was far less precipitous than the upper. In places the
vertical measurements were carried down by rod readings, the level
being set without its tripod on the points of rock where the previous
readings had been taken. At other places Blake marked out horizontal
points ahead on the gorge wall, and climbed to them with the chain.

All the time the reverberations of the cañon were becoming louder.
Dark shadows began to gather along one wall of the gorge. The sun was
no longer directly in line with the ravine, and they were now far down
in the lower depths. Ashton's knees were beginning to tremble with
weakness. They had brought no water, for they were descending to the
river. The torment of thirst was added to the torment of his hate. He
began to look with fierce eagerness for the opportunity to do his
work--to accomplish the deed for which he had descended into this
inferno. Then he could go up again, out of the roaring, reverberating
hell about him, away from the burning hell within him.

The shadows were creeping out at him from the side of the gorge. The
sunshine was going--it was flickering away up the opposite precipices.
Now it had gone. All the gorge was somber with shadows. And below were
the blue-black depths of the cañon bottom. Dread crept in upon his
smoldering hate to sweep across its white-hot coals with chill gusts
of fear.

But now they were come to another sheer cliff--the last in the
descent. From its foot the gorge bottom inclined easily down the final
three hundred feet to its mouth, where the river of the deep roared
past along the cañon bed, its foam flashing silvery white through the
gloom.

Here at last was the opportunity for which he had waited--here down in
these dark shadows where no eye could see--here where no shriek or cry
could pierce up to the outer world of light and sunshine through the
wild uproar of the angry waters. He awaited the moment, aflame with
pent-up fury, shivering with cold dread.

Blake dropped his chain from the cliff-edge and took the last vertical
measurement--fifty-three feet. He smiled. The hardest part of the work
was almost accomplished. He swung over the edge.

Ashton flung himself on his knees beside the triple knot that held the
line fast to its spike. This time he did not hesitate, but began to
tug at the rope end with fierce eagerness. He loosened one knot. The
next was harder to unfasten. Blake had tied it with utmost secureness.
At last it yielded to the tugging of his gloved fingers. He started to
loosen the third knot. Suddenly the taut line slackened. With a
stifled cry of rage, he paused to peer over the edge. Blake had
slipped down the line so rapidly that he was already at the foot of
the cliff.

Reaching back, Ashton jerked the rope from the spike-head, to cast it
down on the engineer. A glimpse of the flashing water in the cañon
bottom gave momentary check to his vengeful impulse. If only he had a
drink of that cool water! He was parched; his lips were cracking; in
his mouth was the taste of dust. Must he stay up here on the dry rock
while Blake went on down beside the foaming river to drink his fill?

As he paused, a doubt clutched his heart in an icy grip. All the
way down that devil's stairway he had been witness to Blake's
extraordinary resourcefulness and tremendous strength. What if he
should find a way to clamber up the precipices? He had lowered
everything before descending. There was nothing to fling down upon
him--no loose rock or stone to topple over and crush him.

Chilled by that doubt, Ashton hesitated, his hands alternately
tightening and relaxing their grip on the rope. What if the man should
contrive to escape? There seemed no bounds to his ingenuity.... No, he
must be followed on down into the cañon and destroyed, else he would
escape--he would come up out of this inferno, like the demon he was,
and destroy _her_. He must be followed!... And the water--the cool,
refreshing water!

His thirst now seized upon Ashton with terrible intensity. Rage, no
less than the laborious exertion of the descent, had dried up his body
with its feverish fire. Almost maddened with the torment of his
craving, he looped the rope on the spike-head with reckless haste and
slid down over the edge of the cliff.

As the line tautened with his weight it gave several inches, but he
was too nearly frantic to heed. He slipped down it so swiftly that the
strands burned his hands through the tough palms of his gloves. In a
few moments his feet were on a level with Blake's head. He clutched
the rope tighter to check his fall. An instant later he dropped
heavily on the rock shelf at the cliff foot, and the rope came
swishing down after him.

"God!" shouted Blake. Involuntarily he flung back his head and stared
up the great gorge to the faraway heights where were waiting his wife
and child.

But Ashton neither paused nor looked upward. Rebounding from his fall,
he rushed down the slope to the river, with a gasping cry--"Water!
water!"

For a time the engineer stood as if stunned, his big fists clenched,
his broad chest heaving laboriously. Yet he was far too well seasoned
in desperate adventure to give way to despair. Soon he rallied. He
lowered his gaze from the heights to examine the cliff and the
adjoining walls of the gorge. All were alike sheer and unscalable. The
lines about his big mouth hardened with grim determination. He picked
up the rope and began winding it about his mid-body above the
low-buckled cartridge belt.

He arranged the coils with such care that he did not notice the
condition of the end of the line until he had drawn in over eighty
feet. Then at last he saw. Though he had not forgotten to wrap the
line with canvas where it passed over the cliff edge, he had thought
the strands must have been frayed through on a sharp corner of rock.
Instead, he found himself staring at the clean-cut string-wrapped rope
end that he had knotted to the spike.

For several moments he stood looking at it, his forehead creased in
thought. What had become of the knot?... He could think of only one
solution to the puzzle. He turned and gazed down through the gloom at
the dim figure crouched beside the edge of the swirling water.

"Locoed," he said pityingly--"Locoed.... Poor devil!"



CHAPTER XXVI

IN THE GLOOM


When the engineer came down to the river, Ashton still crouched low,
his dripping head close over the water, as if he was afraid even to
look away from it. Blake rinsed out his mouth and stood up to sip
slowly from his hat, while looking about at the awesome spectacle of
the cañon bottom.

His first glance was at the swift-flowing stream. His eyes brightened
and the furrows in his forehead smoothed away. The river was not as
formidable as its tumult and foam had threatened. It could be
descended by wading at the places where ledges and bowlders along the
base of the cañon walls failed to afford safe footing. He glanced up
the stupendous precipices at the blue-black ribbon of sky, but only
for a moment. His present thought was not of escape from the depths.

He bent over to grip the crouching man by the shoulder and lift him to
his feet. Ashton writhed about and glared at him like a trapped wolf.

"Let go!" he snarled. "It was an accident! I didn't mean to do it!"

"Of course not," replied Blake, releasing his grip but standing close
that he might not have to shout. "It's all right, old man--my fault.
The knot slipped."

"You own it! You own it's your fault!" cried Ashton. "You've brought
me down here into this hell-pit! We can't get out! Lost! All your
fault--yours!"

He made a frantic snatch and jerked the revolver from Blake's holster.
The engineer caught his wrist in an iron grasp and wrenched the weapon
from him.

"None of that, old man," he admonished with a cool sternness that
chilled the frenzy of the other like a dash of ice water. "You're here
to do your work, and you're going to do it. Understand?"

"My work!" repeated Ashton wildly.

"Yes, your work," commanded Blake, his face as hard as iron. "We're
going to survey Deep Cañon down to the tunnel site. Your work is to
carry rod. Do you get that?"

"Down the cañon?--deeper!"

"We can't get back up here. There's a place down there beyond the
tunnel site where perhaps we can make it up the cañon wall."

"A place where we--?" shrilled Ashton. "A place--Good God! and you
stand here doing nothing!"

He whirled to spring out into the swirling water. Blake was still
swifter in his movements. He caught the fugitive by the arm and
dragged him back.

"Wait!" he commanded. "We must first carry the levels down to the
tunnel site. You hear that? Stick by me, and I'll pull you through.
Try to run, and, by God, I'll shoot you like a dog!"

The captive glared into the steel-white eyes of the engineer, anger
overcoming his panicky fear.

"Let go!" he panted. "Don't worry! I'll do my work--I'll do my work!"

"If you don't, you'll never get out of this cañon," grimly rejoined
Blake. He released his hold, and started up the slope, with a curt
order: "Come along. We can rod down the slope."

Ashton followed him, silent and morose. The instrument was screwed to
its tripod, and a line of levels from the foot of the last vertical
measurement was carried down the slope to the cañon. The last rod
reading was on a ledge, three feet above the water, at the corner of
the gorge. Blake considered the reading worthy of permanent record.
They had measured all the many hundreds of feet down from the top of
High Mesa to these profound depths. With his two-pound hammer and one
of the few remaining spikes, he chiseled a cross deep in the surface
of the black rock.

That mark of the engineer-captain, scouting before the van of man's
Nature-conquering army, was the sign of the first human beings that
had ever descended alive to the bottom of Deep Cañon.

When he had cut the cross, Blake took out his Colt's, and, gazing up
the heights, began to fire at slow intervals. Confined between the
walls of gorge and cañon, each report of the heavy revolver crashed
out above the tumult of the river and ran echoing and reechoing up the
stupendous precipices. Yet long before they reached the rim of those
towering walls they blurred away and merged and were lost in the
ceaseless reverberations of the waters.

Blake well knew that this would happen. But he also knew that the
flash of the shot would be distinctly discernible in the gloom of the
abyss. As he fired, he scanned the verge of the uppermost precipices.
After the fourth shot he ceased firing and flung up his hand to point
at the heights.

"Look!" he shouted. "They see! There is the flag!"

Ashton stared up with wide, feverish eyes. From an out-jutting point
of rock on the lofty rim he saw a tiny white dot waving to and fro
against the blue-black sky. The watchers above had seen the flash of
the revolver shots and were fluttering the white flag in responsive
signal. Though on the world above the sun beat down its full
mid-afternoon flood of light, the two men in the abyss could see stars
twinkling in the dark sky around the waving fleck of white.

Blake fired two shots in quick succession, the agreed signal that told
the flag was seen. He then calmly seated himself and began to add
together the vertical measurements taken during the descent of the
gorge. But Ashton groaned and flung himself face downward on the rough
stone.

Blake soon finished his sum in addition, and the result brought a
smile to his serious face. He checked the figures with painstaking
carefulness, and nodded, fully satisfied. Replacing book and pencil in
the deep pocket of his shirt, he opened one of the packages of food.
When he had laid out enough for a hearty meal, he looked at Ashton.
The prostrate man had not stirred.

"Come, Lafe," he called encouragingly. "Time to eat."

Ashton lay still and made no response.

Blake raised his voice--"Come! You're not going to quit. You're going
to eat. You must keep your strength to fight your way through and up
out of here--to _her_!"

Ashton sullenly rose and came to sit down on the rock beside the
outspread food. He was silent, but he ate even more heartily than his
companion. When they had finished, Blake swung his pack and level on
his shoulder, fired one shot, and stepped out into the swift but
shallow river. Wading as far downstream as he could see to read the
rod in the twilight of the depths, he set up the tripod of his
instrument on a rock and took the reading given him by Ashton.

The survey of the cañon itself had begun. Unappalled by the awful
height of the mighty precipices on either side, undaunted by the
uncertainty of escape, heedless of the gloom of the deep, of the
tumult and rush and chill of the icy waters, the engineer boldly
advanced to the attack of this abysmal stronghold of Primeval Nature,
his square jaw set in grim determination to wrest from these hitherto
inviolate depths that which he sought to learn. Whatever might follow,
he must and would unlock the secret of the hidden waters. Afterwards
might come death by slow starvation or the quick dashing down from
some half-scaled precipice. That mattered not now. First must the
engineer perform his work,--first must he execute the task that he had
set himself for the conquest of the chasm that was likely to prove his
tomb.

Vastly different in purpose, yet no less resolute than the engineer,
Ashton joined zealously in the grim battle with the abyss--for battle
it soon proved to be. Only in places was the subterranean river
shallow and easy to wade. More often it foamed in wild fury down steep
rapids, to fling itself over ledges into black pools; or, worst of
all, it swirled deep and arrowy-swift between fanged rocks where the
channel narrowed.

Wading, swimming, leaping from rock to rock, scrambling up and down
the steep precipice foot, creeping along narrow shelves,--stubbornly
the explorers fought their way deeper through that wild passage.
Chilled by the icy waters and bruised by many a slip on loose stones
and wet, water-polished rocks, ever they carried the line of levels
down alongside the torrent, crossing over and back from side to side,
twisting and turning with the twists and bends of the chasm. And at
every stand Blake jotted down the rod readings in his half-soaked book
with his pencil and figured the elevation of each turning point before
"pulling up" his instrument to move on downstream to the next "set
up."

At the end of every half hour he fired a single shot to signal their
progress in the depths to the watchers above. But never once did he
stop to look up for the flag. Occasionally he was required to help
Ashton through or over some unusually difficult passage. For the most
part, however, each fought his own way. The odds were not altogether
in favor of the older man. He was hampered by the care of the
instrument, which must be shielded from all blows or falls. The rod,
on the contrary, served as a staff and support to Ashton, alike in the
water and on the rocks.

Some time before sunset the waning light in the cañon bottom became so
dim that Blake was compelled to cease work. He took a last reading on
a broad shelf of rock well above the surface of the water, joined
Ashton on the shelf, and began firing the revolver at five-minute
intervals. After the fifth shot he at last perceived the white dot of
the flag far above on the opposite brink of the chasm. He fired two
shots in quick succession, and calmly sat down to open one of the
soaked packages of food.

Ashton did not wait to be bidden to supper. He fell to on the food and
ate ravenously. Blake did not check him, though he himself took little
and carefully gathered up and returned to the package every scrap of
food left at the end of the meal. As Ashton lay back on the rock he
squirmed from side to side and groaned. His bruises were so numerous
that he could not find a comfortable position.

"Cheer up!" grimly quoted Blake. "The worst is yet to come."

He stretched himself out on the rock-shelf and, regardless of the
sullen resistance of the younger man, drew him into his arms. Chilled
to the marrow by his frequent icy drenchings, Ashton was shivering in
the cold wind which came down the cañon with the approach of night.
But Blake's massive body and limbs were aglow with abundant vitality.
Warmed and sheltered from the wind, the exhausted man relaxed like a
child in the strong arms of his companion and quickly sank into the
deep slumber of overtaxed nature.

Blake lay awake until the narrow strip of sky that showed between the
vast walls of rock deepened to an inky blackness thickly sprinkled
with scintillating stars. The light of a watchfire flamed red far
above on the opposite rim of the chasm wall. To the man below it was
like the glow of human love in the chill darkness of the Unknown. With
a gesture of reverent passion and adoration, he put his fingers to his
lips and flung a kiss up out of the abyss. Then he, too, relaxed on
the hard rock and sank into heavy sleep.

Ashton was the first to waken. The wind had changed, and he was roused
by the different note in the ceaseless roar of the river. He stared up
at the star-jeweled sky. It was still intensely black; yet the gloom
of the depths was lessened by a vague pale illumination, a faint
shadow of light that might have been the ghost of a dead day. He
thought it was the gray dawn, and sought to roll over on his rock bed
away from the sheltering embrace of Blake. The engineer was still deep
in profound slumber. His big arm slipped laxly from across the moving
man's breast.

The change of position wrung a groan from Ashton. Every muscle in his
body was cramped, every bruise stiff and sore. Not until he had turned
and twisted for several moments was he able to rise to his feet. The
vague ghost light about him brightened. He gazed upwards. He did not
notice the tiny flame of the fire that told of the anxious watchers
above. Out over the monstrous black wall of the abyss was drifting a
burnished silver-white disk.

"The moon!" he groaned. "Only the moon! To wait here--with him!--with
him!"

He looked down at the big form of the sleeping man, and suddenly all
his pent-up rage burst its bounds. It poured through his veins in
streams of fire. He stared about in fierce eagerness in search of a
weapon. Blake lay upon the hilt of the revolver; the level rod lacked
weight and balance. But the heavy hammer--a blow on the upturned
temple of the sleeper!--

With the cunning stealth of madness, Ashton took up the hammer and
crept around back of Blake's head. He straightened on his knees, and
peered down at the calm, powerful face of the engineer.

What if he was a veritable Samson, this conqueror of cañons? Where now
was his power? Sleep had bound fast his steel muscles, had numbed his
indomitable will and locked his keen intellect in the black prison of
unconsciousness.

The avenger hovered over him, gloating. Now at last was come the
opportunity--the perfect opportunity, down in these uttermost depths,
in the secret night time. The world above slept--and he slept. Never
should he waken from that sleep; never should he rouse up in his evil
strength to escape out of the abyss and bring ruin to her!

Lightly the hammer swung over and downward, measuring the curve of the
stroke. It lifted and poised. Again it swung down; and again it lifted
and poised. The blow must be certain--there must not be the slightest
chance of missing.

Each time the heavy steel head stopped a full two inches short of the
upturned temple--but each time its shadow fell across the eyes of the
sleeper. He stirred. The hammer whirled up, gripped in both hands of
the kneeling man. The sleeper turned flat on his back, with his face
full to the light. A quiver ran through the tense muscles of the
avenger. Had the eyes of the sleeper opened, had their lids so much as
fluttered, the hammer must have crashed down.

But it was the sleeper's lips that moved. As it were by a miracle of
acuteness, the tense nerves of the other's ear caught the whispered
words through the roaring of the river--"_Jenny! Son!_"

The hammer hurled away out into the swirl of the foam-flecked waters.
The avenger flung himself about, face downward on the rock.

"God!" he sobbed, in an agony of remorse. "Forgive me, God! I cannot
do it! I am weak--unfit!... Not even to save her!--not even to save
her!"

He writhed in the anguish of his love and rage and self-abasement. He
had failed; he was too weak to do the deed. But God--Would God permit
that evil should befall her?

He struggled to his feet and flung up his quivering hands to moon and
stars and black sky in passionate invocation--"O God! You say that
vengeance is Yours; that You will repay! Take me, if You will--I give
myself! Only destroy him too! Save her! save her!"

Again Blake stirred, and this time he opened his eyes. Ashton had sunk
down in a huddled silent heap. Blake gazed up at the watchfire on the
heights, smiled, and turned over to again fall asleep.



CHAPTER XXVII

LOWER DEPTHS


Beetling precipices shut off the direct light of the moonbeams and
left the abyss again in dense darkness long before the coming of the
laggard dawn. Blake slept on, storing up strength for the renewal of
the battle. Yet even he could not outsleep the reluctant lingering of
night. He awoke while the tiny flame of the watchfire still flickered
bright against the inky darkness of the sky.

Ashton had fallen into a fitful doze. The engineer stood up and
silently groped his way to and fro on the shelf of rock, stretching
and limbering his cramped muscles. He wasted no particle of energy;
the moment he had relieved his stiffness he stretched out again. He
lay contemplating that flame of love on the heights until it faded
against the lessening blackness of the sky and the rays of the morning
sun began to angle down the upper precipices.

He rose to take out two portions of food from the single pack in which
he had bound up all the provisions. The portion for Ashton was small;
his own was smaller. He roused the dozing man and placed the larger
share of food in his hand.

"Don't drop it," he cautioned. "That's all I can let you have. We must
go on rations until we can see a way out of this hole."

Ashton ate his meager breakfast without replying. The fire within him
had burned to ashes. He was cold and dull and dispirited. He had
failed. He would have been willing to sit and brood, and wait for God
to answer his prayer.--But his waiting was not to be an inert
lingering in the place where he had failed.

The moment the down-creeping daylight so lessened the gloom of the
depths that Blake could take rod readings, he plunged over into the
stream, with a curtly cheerful command for Ashton to prepare to
follow. Too dejected even to resist, the younger man silently obeyed.
When Blake signaled to him through the dimness, he held the rod on the
last turning-point of the previous day, and lowered himself from the
shelf down into the stream.

The evening before, the water at this point had come up to his waist.
It was now only knee-deep. His surprise was so great that in passing
Blake he broke his sullen silence to remark the fact and ask what
could have caused the change.

"Melting of the snow on the high range," the engineer shouted in
explanation. "Takes time for it to run down the cañon all these miles.
River probably still falling. Will begin to rise about noon. Faster
we get along now, the easier it will be. Hustle!"

Ashton responded mechanically to the will of his commander. For the
time being his own will was almost paralyzed. The reaction from his
long-sustained rage had left him dazed and nerveless. He had sunk into
a state of fatalistic indifference. He moved quickly downstream from
turning-point to turning-point, driven by Blake's will, but with a
heedless recklessness that all Blake's warnings could not check.

Within the first hour he twice stumbled and went under while wading
deep reaches of the river, and once he fell from a ledge, bruising
himself severely and knocking a splinter from the rod. Half an hour
later he lost his footing in descending a swift and narrow place that
would have been impassable at high water. Had not Blake been below him
he would never have come out alive.

The engineer leaped in and dragged the drowning man to safety, after a
desperate struggle with the torrent. But in the wild swirl, both the
food-pack and the rod went adrift. The moment he had rescued his
companion, Blake rushed away downstream, leaping like a goat from rock
to rock. He at last overtook the rod, caught in the eddy of a pool. Of
the pack he could find no trace. He returned to Ashton and silently
handed him the rod.

There was no need for him to admonish. The loss of all the food and
the narrowness of his escape had sobered the younger man. He resumed
his work with a cautious swiftness of movement that avoided all
needless risks yet never hesitated to encounter and rush through the
dangers that could not be avoided. In this he copied Blake.

All the time they were advancing down the angry torrent, deeper and
deeper into its secret stronghold,--creeping, crawling, leaping,
wading, swimming--step by step, turn after turn, wresting from the
abyss that which the engineer was resolved to learn, even though he
should learn, only to perish.

The day advanced. Steadfastly they struggled on down the bed of the
river, twisting and crossing over with the winding course of the
chasm; now between beetling precipices that shut out all sight of the
blue-black sky; now in more open stretches where the Titanic walls
swung apart and the glorious hot sun rays pierced down into the very
depths to warm their drenched bodies and lighten their heavy spirits.

Ashton had long since lost all count of time. His watch had been
smashed in his first fall of the day. But Blake seemed to have an
intuitive sense of time. At fairly regular intervals he fired a shot
to tell the watchers above the extent of their progress. Sometimes the
answering flag-signal could be seen waving from the rim of the cañon.
But in many places those above could not come near the brink to look
over.

The approach of midday found the bruised and weary fighters
struggling through one of the narrowest reaches of the cañon. The
precipices jutted out so far that the lower depths seemed more
cavern than chasm, and the river swirled deep and swift between
sheer, narrow walls. Twice Ashton was swept past what should have
been the next turning-point, and Blake, unable to see the figures on
the rod, had to guess at his readings.

At last the precipices swung apart and showed the sky at a twist in
the cañon's course that was the sharpest of all the turns the
explorers had as yet encountered. As Blake came wading down past
Ashton, along the inner curve of the bend, he stopped and pointed
skywards. Ashton raised his drooping head and peered up at the rim of
the opposite wall. From the brink a dense column of green-wood smoke
was rising into the indigo sky.

"One more set-up," shouted Blake.

Three minutes later he took a reading on the water and on a point of
rock at the angle of the cañon-side around which the river swung in
its sharp curve. Three more minutes, and the two battered fighters
stood together on the last bench of that tremendous line of levels,
with torn and rent clothing, sodden, gaping boots, bodies bruised from
head to foot--bleeding, weary, but victorious! They had finished the
work that Blake had set out to do.

He held up the now-soaked notebook for Ashton to see the last penciled
elevation on the wet paper.

"Two thousand, forty-five!" he shouted. "Over five hundred feet above
that bench in Dry Greek Gulch! Water, electricity!--Dry Mesa shall be
a garden!"

Ashton stared moodily into the exultant face of the engineer.

"Are you sure of that?" he asked. "How do you know that God will let
you climb up out of this hell of stone and water?"

"There's the saying, 'God helps those who help themselves,'" replied
Blake. "I'm going to put up the best fight I can. If that doesn't win
out, I shall at least have the satisfaction of not having quit. If you
wish to pray, do so. The sooner we start the better. From now on, the
water will be rising."

"I prayed last night," said Ashton. He added somberly, "And now we are
both going to the devil."

"No," said Blake, with no less earnestness. "There is no devil--there
is no room for a devil in all the universe. What man calls evil is
ignorance,--his ignorance of those primeval forces of nature which he
has yet to chain; his ignorance of those higher qualities in his own
nature which, if known, would prevent him from wronging others and
would enable him to bring happiness to himself and others."

"You say that!" cried Ashton. "You can mock! You do not believe in
hell!"

Blake smiled grimly. "What do you call this?--But you mean a hell
hereafter. I believe this: If, when we pass into the Unknown, we
continue to exist as individual consciousnesses, then we carry with us
the heaven and the hell that we have each upbuilt for ourselves."

"God will not let you escape," stated Ashton. "You will pass from this
hell of water into the hell of fire and brimstone."

"Have it your own way," said Blake. "I lived one summer in Death
Valley. The other place can't be much hotter."

He climbed up the ledges and planted the level firmly on its tripod
above the high-water mark of the spring floods. He called down to
Ashton: "Hate to leave the old monkey up here; but it will serve as a
memento of our present visit, when we come down again to locate the
tunnel head."

"How can it be that we shall ever come down again?" replied Ashton.
"It is impossible--for we shall never go up."

Blake jumped down the ledges to him and pointed to the column of smoke
on the lofty heights.

"Look there," he said. "That is where we are going, if there is any
possible way to go. An optimist would stand here and wait, certain
that wings would soon sprout for him to fly up; a pessimist would sit
down and quit. An optimist is a fool; a pessimist is a worse fool."

"And which are you?" asked Ashton.

"I am neither. I am a meliorist. I am going to face the facts, and
then fight for all I'm worth. What's more, you're going to do the
same. Come! We've still got some clothes left, the rod for you to use
as a staff, this rope, the revolver, and seventeen cartridges. It's
fortunate we have any. We've got to signal that we are going on down
the cañon, instead of back up."

"We may as well stay and die here. But since you prefer to keep
moving, I have no objections," said Ashton, with ironical politeness.

Blake promptly stepped into the water and led the way to the next
shelf of rock. Here he fired a shot. Going a few yards farther along
the rocks, he fired again. Three times he fired, at intervals of two
minutes. Then the white dot of the flag appeared on the precipice
brink directly up across from him.

"Once more, and we're sure they understand," he said.

Advancing a full hundred yards on down the cañon, he fired the fourth
shot. Very soon the fleck of white flaunted on the rim a little way
beyond them.

"They understand!" cried Blake. "Trust Jenny to use her head! Now
catch your breath and tighten up. We're going to move!"

He started, and Ashton followed close behind. It was the same rough,
fierce game of leaping, crawling, wading, swimming,--battling with the
river, the rocks, the ledges. But now they were no longer checked and
halted by the alternate stoppings for set-ups and turning-points, and
no longer was Blake encumbered with the care of the level. There was
nothing now to hinder or delay them except the natural obstacles of
their wild path down the bed of the torrent.

Blake could give all his thought to picking the best and quickest way
through rapids and falls, over the water-washed rocks and along the
side ledges. And he could give all his great strength to helping his
companion past the hard places. In return Ashton gave such help as he
could to the engineer, many times when a steadying hand or the
outstretched rod rendered easier a descent or the fording of some
swift mill race in the stream.

At the end of the first quarter-mile Blake had fired a shot, and again
at the second quarter. After that he waited longer intervals. He
considered it advisable to husband the few remaining cartridges.

The river was now rapidly rising. But every inch of added depth found
the two fugitives much farther down the cañon. In two hours they
advanced thrice the distance that they had covered in the same time
before noon, and this despite the increasing depth and force of the
river.

The pace was so hot that Ashton was beginning to stumble and slip, but
Blake kept by him and helped him along by word and deed. He asserted
and repeated a dozen times over, that they were nearing the place
where an ascent of the precipices might be possible. At last they
rounded a turn in the winding chasm, and Blake was able to point to a
break in the sheer wall on the Dry Mesa side, where the precipices
were set back one above the other in a Cyclopean stepladder and their
steeply-pitched faces were rough with crevices and shelves.

"Look!" he cried. "There's the place--there's our ladder up from hell
to heaven!"

Ashton soon lowered his weary head. He stared dully downstream to
where a fifty-foot cliff extended across from side to side of the
cañon like a dam.

"Part of the wall slid in," he stated with the simplicity of one who
is nearing exhaustion.

"That shall be our bridge to the ladder," shouted Blake. "It's all
sheer cliff along here at the foot of the break, but the ledges run
down sideways to the top of the cross cliff. We shall soon be lying up
there, high and dry, getting our second wind for the run up the
ladder."

The engineer spoke confidently, and felt what he spoke. But as they
struggled on down the turbulent stream to the cross cliff, the light
left his face. From wall to wall of the cañon the great mass of fallen
rock stretched across the bottom in a sheer-faced barrier, broken only
by a tunnel barely large enough to suck in the swelling volume of the
river.

Blake came down close to the intake, scanning every foot of the cliff
face for a scalable break or crevice. There was none to be found. He
climbed along the cliff foot to a low shelf beside the roaring tunnel,
and stood staring at the opening in deep thought. Even while he
looked, the swelling volume of the river filled the tunnel to its
roof. Blake peered at the fresh watermark twenty feet up the face of
the cliff, and bent down beside Ashton, who had stretched out to rest
on the shelf of rock.

"There's only one thing to it, old man," he said. "We must dive
through that tunnel."

"Through that hole?" gasped Ashton. "No! I've done enough. I shall
stay here."

"To drown like a rat in a rainwater barrel!" rejoined Blake. "Look at
that watermark. The tunnel is now running full. Inside a quarter-hour
the river will be up over this ledge. It will keep rising till it
reaches that mark, and it will not fall until after low water."

"What do I care?" said Ashton hopelessly. "Go to the devil your own
way. I'd rather drown here than in that underground hole. Leave me
alone."

Blake considered a full half minute, looked up the cliff face, and
replied: "Perhaps it's as well. I shall do the best I can. But first I
want to tell you I've wiped out all that past affair. You are another
person from that Lafayette Ashton. We stand here almost face to face
with the Unknown. One or both of us may soon go out into the Darkness.
As we may never meet again, I wish to tell you that you have proved
yourself, even more than I hoped when I saw you come rushing down the
ravine to join me. You have proved yourself a man. Good-by."

He held out his hand. But Ashton turned his face to the wall of rock
and was silent. After a time he heard the sound of Blake's worn heels
on the outer end of the shelf. His ears, attuned to the ceaseless
tumult of the waters, caught the click of the protruded heel-nail
heads. There was a brief pause--then the plunge. He looked about
quickly and saw Blake's hands vanish in the down-sucking eddy where
the swollen waters drew into the now hidden intake of the tunnel.

A cry of horror burst from his heaving chest. Blake had gone--Blake
the iron-limbed, iron-hearted man. He had conquered the river--and now
the wild waters had seized him and were mauling and smashing and
crushing him in the terrible mill of the cavern. Beyond that
underground passage, it might be miles away, the victor would fling up
on some fanged rock a shapeless mass that once had been a man.



CHAPTER XXVIII

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS


Ashton again turned his face to the rock and groaned. God had answered
his prayer. Now must he pay the price. If only he could force himself
to lie still while the rising waters brimmed up over the ledge and up
over his head and face. He was tired--tired! It would be so peaceful
to lie and rest under the quiet waters.

But the first ripple that crept over the surface of the shelf brought
him to his feet with the chill of its icy touch. He climbed to a shelf
higher up and again stretched himself full length on the rock. To lie
still and rest was heavenly.... It was too good to last. The water
crept after him up the ledge. This time he could climb no higher.

He sat erect and waited, still resting, until the flood rose to his
chin. Then he stood up, leaning on the battered level rod. The water
rose after him, creeping with relentless stealth from his thigh to his
waist, from his waist to his chest. It would soon be lapping at his
throat, and then--he must begin to swim. Life was far stronger within
him than he had thought. His strength had come back. Blake was right.
A man should fight. He should hold fast to hope, and fight to the very
last.

Something swept from side to side along the face of the cliff above
him. It tapped the rock close over his head. He looked up and saw a
rope. He could not see over the rounded brink of the cliff, but he had
no need. There was a rescuer above him who knew his desperate
situation. Could it be Blake? Surely not! He must have perished in the
frightful vortex of the tunnel.

The rope swung lower. Now it was within reach. Ashton made a clutch as
it swept over him and caught its end. He gave a tug. At once the line
slackened down to him. He felt something in his palm, twisted between
the rope strands. He looked and saw that it was a piece of folded
paper. He opened it and found written a terse sentence in Blake's bold
clear hand:

                      Tie rod to line and climb.

Why should he tie the splintered level rod to the rope? Of what
possible use could it be in climbing the precipices? But even while
Ashton asked himself the questions he obeyed Blake's directions. The
water lapped up over his chin as he tied the knot. He pulled heavily
on the rope. It gave a little way, and then tautened. He reached up
and began to climb, hand over hand, with desperate speed.

[Illustration: Another desperate clutch at the rope--still another]

Thirty feet above the water his strength was almost outspent, but he
struggled to raise himself one more time, and then another. To pause
meant to slip back and perish. Another upward heave. The rope here
bent in over the rounding cliff. Hardly could he force his fingers
between it and the rock. Yet if only he could get his knee up on the
sharp slope! He heaved again, his face purple with exertion, the veins
swelling out on his forehead as if about to burst.

At last! his knee was up and braced against the rock. Another
desperate clutch at the rope--another heave--still another. The cliff
edge was rounding back. Every upward hitch was easier than the one
before. Now he was scrambling up on toes and knees; now he could rise
to his feet.

The line led across a waterworn ledge and downward. Ashton peered
over, and saw the senseless body of Blake wedged against the other
side of the ledge. About it, close below the arms, the line was
knotted fast.

Ashton stared wonderingly at the still, white face of the unconscious
man. It was covered with cold sweat. A peculiar twist in the sprawling
left leg caught his attention. He looked--and understood. Panting with
exertion, he staggered down the ledges of the lower side of the
barrier to where the river burst furiously out of the mouth of the
tunnel.

Hurled by that mad torrent from the darkness of the gorged cavern
straight upon a line of rocks, all Blake's strength and quickness had
not enabled him to save himself from injury. Yet he had crept up those
rough ledges, dragging his shattered leg. Atrocious as must have been
his agony, he had crept all the way to the top, had written the note,
and flung down the rope to rescue his companion.

There was no vessel in which Ashton could carry water. He had no hat,
his boots were full of holes, he must use his hands in scrambling back
up the ledges. He stripped off his tattered flannel shirt, dipped it
in a swirling eddy, and started back as fast as he could climb.

Blake still lay unconscious. Ashton straightened out the twisted leg,
and knelt to bathe the big white face with an end of the dripping
garment. After a time the eyelids of the prostrate man fluttered and
lifted, and the pale blue eyes stared upward with returning
consciousness.

"I'm here!" cried Ashton. "Do you see? You saved me!"

"Colt's gone," muttered Blake. "But cartridges--fire."

"You mean, fire the cartridges to let them know where we are? How can
I do it without the revolver?"

"No, build a fire," replied the engineer. He raised a heavy hand to
point towards the high end of the barrier. "Driftwood up there. Bring
it down. I'll light it."

"Light it--how?" asked Ashton incredulously.

"Get it," ordered Blake.

Ashton hurried across the crest of the barrier to where it sloped up
and merged in the precipice foot. The mass of rock that formed the
barrier had fallen out of the face of the lower part of the cañon
wall, leaving a great hollow in the rock. But above the hollow the
upper precipices beetled out and rose sheer, on up the dizzy heights
to the verge of the chasm. Contrasted with this awesome undermined
wall, the broken, steeple-sloped precipices adjoining it on the
upstream side looked hopefully scalable to Ashton. He marked out a
line of shelves and crevices running far up to where the full sunlight
smiled on the rock.

But Blake had told him to fetch wood for a fire, that they might
signal the watchers on the heights. He hastened up over the rocks to
the heaps of logs and branches stranded on the high end of the barrier
by the freshets. Every year the river, swollen by the spring rains,
brimmed over the top of this natural dam.

Yet not all the heaps lying on the ledges were driftwood. As Ashton
approached, he was horrified to see that the largest and highest
situated piles were nothing else than masses of bones. Drawn by a
gruesome fascination, he climbed up to the nearest of the ghastly
heaps. The loose ribs and vertebræ scattered down the slope seemed to
him the size of human ribs and vertebræ. He shuddered as they crunched
under his tread.

Then he saw a skull with spiral-curved horns. He looked up the cañon
wall, and understood. The high-heaped bones were the skeletons of
sheep. In a flash, he remembered Isobel's account of Gowan, that first
day up there on the top of the mesa. Not only had the puncher killed
six men; he had, together with other violent men of the cattle ranges,
driven thousands of sheep over into the cañon--and this was the
place.

Sick with horror and loathing, Ashton ran to snatch up an armful of
the smaller driftwood and hurry back down to the center of the
barrier. He found Blake lying white and still. But beside him were
three cartridges from which the bullets had been worked out. At the
terse command of the engineer, Ashton ground one of the older and
drier pieces of wood to minute fragments on a rock.

Blake emptied the powder from one of the cartridges into the little
pile of splinters, and holding the edge of another shell against a
corner of the rock, tapped the cap with a stone. At the fifth stroke
the cap exploded. The loosened powder of the cartridge flared out into
the powder-sprinkled tinder. Soon a fire of the dry, half-rotted
driftwood was blazing bright and almost smokeless in the twilight of
the depths.

"Now haul up the rod," directed Blake, and he lay back to bask in the
grateful warmth.

Ashton drew up the level rod and came back over the ledge. He found
that the engineer had freed himself from the last coils of the rope
and was unraveling the end that had been next his body. But his eyes
were upturned to the heights.

"Look--the flag!" he said.

"Already?" exclaimed Ashton.

"Yes. No doubt one of them has been waiting on that out-jutting
point.--Now, if you'll break the rod. We've got to get my leg into
splints."

The crude splints were soon ready. For bandages there were strips from
the tattered shirts of both men. Unraveled rope-strands, burnt off in
the fire, served to lash all together. Beads of cold sweat gathered
and rolled down Blake's white face throughout the cruel operation. Yet
he endured every twist and pull of the broken limb without a groan.
When at last the bones were set to his satisfaction and the leg lashed
rigid to the splints, he even mustered a faint smile.

"That beats an amputation," he declared. "Now if you can help me up
under the cliff, where you can plant the fire against a back-log--I
want to dry out and do some planning while you're climbing up for
help. I've an idea we can put in a dynamo down here, with turbines in
the intake and in the mouth of the tunnel--carry a wire up over the
top of the mesa and down into the gulch. Understand? All the electric
power we want to drive the tunnel, and very cheap."

"My God!" gasped Ashton. "You can lie here--here--maimed, already
starving--and can plan like that?"

"Why not? No fun thinking of my leg, is it? As for the rest, you're
going up to report the situation. They'll soon manage to yank me out
of this blessed hole."

Ashton's face darkened. "But that's the question," he rejoined. "Am I
going to go up? Am I going to try to go up?"

Blake looked at him with a steady, unflinching gaze. "There's
something queer about all this. Isn't it time you explained? When the
rope came off that last cliff in the gorge and I saw that you had
untied it before sliding down, I thought you were off your head. And
two or three times today, too. But since we landed here--"

"Your broken leg," interrupted Ashton--"it made me forget. You had
saved me with the rope. I had to help you. Now I see how foolish I
have been. I should have left you to lie here, and flung myself back
over into the water."

"Why?" calmly queried Blake.

"Why! You ask why?" cried Ashton, his eyes ablaze with excitement, his
whole body quivering. "Can't you see? Are you blind? What do I care
about myself if I can save her from you? I shall not try to escape.
You shall never go up there to work her harm!"

"Harm her? You mean put through this irrigation project?"

"No!" shouted Ashton. "Don't lie and pretend, you hypocrite! You know
what I mean! You know she could not hide how you were enticing her!"

Blake stared in utter astonishment. Then, regardless of his leg, he
sat up and said quietly: "I see. I thought you must have understood
when she told me, there at the last moment before we started. She is
my sister."

"Sister!" scoffed Ashton. "You liar! You have no sister. Your sisters
died years ago. Genevieve told me."

"That was what I told her. I believed it true. But it was not true.
Belle did not die--God! when I think of that! It has helped me through
this fight--it helped me crawl up here with that leg dangling. Good
God! To think of Jenny waiting for me up there, and Son, and little
Belle too--little Belle whom all these years I thought dead!"

Ashton stood as if turned to stone. "Belle--you call her Belle? She
told me--Chuckie only a nickname!" he stammered. "Adopted--her real
name Isobel!"

"We always called her Belle--Baby Belle! She was the youngest," said
Blake.

"But why--why did you not--tell me?"

"I did not know. She did--she knew from the first, there at
Stockchute. I see it now. Even before that, she must have guessed it.
Yes, I see all now. She sent for me to come out here, because she
thought I might be her brother."

"You did not tell me!" reproached Ashton, his face ghastly. "How was I
to know?"

"I tell you, I did not know," repeated Blake. "At first--yes, all
along--there was something about her voice and face--But she had
changed so much, and all these years--eight, nine years--I had thought
her dead. She gave me no sign--only that friendliness. I did not know
until the very last moment, there on the edge of the ravine. I thought
you saw it; that you heard her tell me. It seemed to me everybody must
have heard."

"I was running away--I could not bear it. I think I must have been
crazy for a time. If only I had heard! My God! if only I had heard!"

"Well, you know now," said Blake. "What's done is done. The question
now is, what are you going to do next?"

Instantly Ashton's drooping figure was a-quiver with eagerness.

"You wish first to be taken up near the driftwood," he exclaimed.
"Let me lift you. Don't be afraid to put your weight on me. Hurry! We
must lose no time!"

Blake was already struggling up. Ashton strained to help him rise
erect on his sound leg. Braced and half lifted by the younger man, the
engineer hobbled and hopped along the barrier crest and up its sloping
side. His trained eye picked out a great weather-seasoned pine log
lying directly beneath the outermost point of the cañon rim. An object
dropped over where the flag still flecked against the indigo sky,
would have fallen straight down to the log, unless deflected by the
prong of a ledge that jutted out twelve hundred feet from the top.

"Here," panted Blake, regardless of the great pile of skeletons heaped
on the far end of the log. "This place--right below them! Go
back--bring fire and rope."

Ashton ran back to fetch the rope and a dozen blazing sticks.
Driftwood was strewn all around. In a minute he had a fire started
against the butt end of the log. He began to gather a pile of fuel.
But Blake checked him with a cheerful--"That's enough, old man. I can
manage now. Take the rope, and go."

When Ashton had coiled the rope over his shoulder and under the
opposite arm, he came and stood before his prostrate companion. His
face was scarlet with shame.

"I have been a fool--and worse," he said. "I doubted her. I am utterly
unfit to live. If I were alone down here, I would stay and rot. But
you are her brother. If it is possible to get up there, I am going
up."

"You are going up!" encouraged Blake. "You will make it. Give my love
to them. Tell them I'm doing fine."

He held out his hand.

"No," said Ashton. "I'd give anything if I could grip hands with you.
But I cannot. You are her brother. I am unfit to touch your hand."

He turned and ran up the precipice-foot to the first steep ascent of
the steeple-sloped break in the wall of the abyss.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE CLIMBER


A day of anxiety, only partly relieved by those tiny flashes of light
so far, far down in the awful depths; then the long night of ceaseless
watching. Neither Genevieve nor Isobel had been able to sleep during
those hours when no flash signaled up to them from the abysmal
darkness.

Then at last, a full hour after dawn on the mesa top, the down-peering
wife had caught the flash that told of the renewal of the exploration.
As throughout the previous day, Gowan brought the ladies food and
whatever else they needed. Only the needs of the baby had power to
draw its mother away from the cañon edge. Isobel moved always along
the giddy verge wherever she could cling to it, following the unseen
workers in the depths.

On his first trip to the ranch, the puncher had brought Genevieve's
field glasses--an absurdly small instrument of remarkable power. Three
times the first day and twice the second morning she and Isobel had
the joy of seeing their loved ones creeping along the abyss bottom at
places where the sun pierced down through the gloom. They missed
other chances because the cañon edge was not everywhere so easily
approachable.

Many times the flash of Blake's revolver passed unseen by them.
Sometimes they had been forced away from the brink; sometimes the
depths were cut off from their view by juttings of the vast walls. Yet
now and again one or the other caught a flash that marked the advance
of the explorers.

Towards midday a last flash was seen by both above the turn where the
cañon curved to run towards Dry Fork Gulch. Between this point and the
sharp bend opposite the gulch the precipices overhung the cañon
bottom. Carrying the baby, the two hastened to the bend, to heap up
and light a great beacon fire of green wood.

Gowan followed with the ponies, cool, silent and efficient. From the
first he had seldom looked over into the cañon. His part was to serve
Miss Chuckie and her friend, and wait. Like Ashton, he had failed to
surmise the real significance of that tender parting between Blake and
Isobel. His look had betrayed boundless amazement when he saw the wife
of the man take the sobbing girl into her arms and comfort her. But he
had spoken no word of inquiry; and every moment since, both ladies had
been too utterly absorbed in their watch to talk to him of anything
else.

At last the exploration was nearing the turning point. Genevieve and
Isobel lay on the edge of the precipice near the beacon fire, peering
down for the flash that would tell of the last rod reading.

Slowly the minutes dragged by, and no welcome signal flashed through
the dark shadows. The usual interval between shots had passed. Still
no signal. They waited and watched, with fast-mounting apprehension.
Could the brave ones down in those fearsome depths have failed almost
in sight of the goal? or could misfortune have overtaken them in that
narrow, cavernous reach of the chasm so close to their objective
point?

At last--"There! there it is!"

Together the two watchers saw the flash, and together they shrieked
the glad discovery.

Genevieve rose to go to her crying baby. Before she could silence him,
Isobel screamed to her: "Another shot!--farther downstream! What can
it mean?"

Genevieve put down the still-sobbing baby and ran again to the verge
of the precipice. Two minutes after the second flash there came a
third, a few yards still farther along the cañon.

"They have changed their plans. They are going downstream," said
Genevieve.

She caught up the long pole of the flag and ran to thrust it out
opposite the point where she had seen the flash.

Gowan was preparing for the return trip up along the cañon to the
starting point. At Isobel's call, he silently turned the ponies about
the other way and followed the excited watchers. As he did so, the
girl perceived a fourth flash in the abyss, a hundred yards farther
downstream. She hastened with the flag to a point a little beyond the
place.

When Genevieve had quieted the baby and overtaken Isobel, the latter
was ready with a question: "You know Tom so well. Why is he going on
down? He said that he would at once return after reaching the place
where the head of the tunnel is to be."

"He must have seen the beacon," replied Genevieve. "He could not have
mistaken that. Something has forced him to change his plans. It may be
they were swept down some place in the river that he knows they cannot
re-ascend."

"Oh! do not say it!" sobbed the girl. "If they cannot get back--oh!
what will they do? How will they ever escape?"

"Is there no other place?" asked Genevieve. "Think, dear. Is there no
break in these terrible precipices?"

"There's a place where the wall slopes back--but steep, oh, so steep!
Yet it is barely possible--" The girl's voice sank, and she glanced
about at Gowan. "It is just this side of where more than five thousand
sheep were driven over into the cañon. That was four years ago. I
have never since been able to go near the place."

"Tom said that he rode all along the cañon for miles. You say it may
be possible to climb up at that place. He must have seen it, and he
has remembered it."

"Then you think--?"

"I know that if it is possible for anyone to climb the wall, Tom will
climb it--and he will bring up Lafayette with him."

"Dear Genevieve! You are so strong! so full of hope!"

"Not hope, dear. It is trust. I know Tom better than you. That is
all."

"Another flash!" cried Isobel. "So soon, yet all that long way from
the last! They are traveling far faster!"

"Yes, they have finished with the levels," divined Genevieve. "We must
hasten."

Isobel called the news to the silent puncher, and all moved along to
overtake the hurrying fugitives below. Though both parties went so
much faster, Blake's frequent shots kept the anxious watchers above in
closer touch than at any time before.

At last they came to that Cyclopean ladder of precipices, rising one
above the other in narrow steps, and all inclined at a giddy pitch far
steeper than any house roof. Yet for a long way down them the field
glasses showed their surfaces wrinkled with shelves and projecting
ledges and creased with faults and crevices.

The party went past this semi-break in the sheer wall, and halted on
the out-jutting point of the rim where the luckless flock of sheep had
been driven over to destruction. No reference was made to that
ruthless slaughter of innocents. Gowan calmly set about preparing a
camp. The ladies lay down to watch in the shade of a frost-cracked
rock on the verge of the wall.

Already the time had come and gone for the regular signal of the
revolver shot. The watchers began to grow apprehensive. Still their
straining eyes saw no flash in the depths. A half hour passed. Their
apprehension deepened to dread. An hour--they were white with terror.

Suddenly a tiny red spot appeared--not a flash that came and went like
lightning, but a flame that remained and grew larger.

"A fire!" cried Isobel. "They have halted and built a fire."

Genevieve brought the flag and thrust it out over the edge. The inner
end of the pole she wedged in a crevice of the split rock.

"They have stopped to rest," she said. "It may be that Lafayette is
worn out. But soon I trust they will be coming up."

She looked through her glasses. The fire was burning its brightest.
She discerned the prostrate figure beside the ledge. She watched it
fixedly. Soon another figure appeared in the circle of firelight. It
bent over the first, doing something with pieces of stick.

"Look," whispered Genevieve, handing the glasses to her companion,
"Tom is hurt. Lafayette is binding his leg. It is broken or badly
strained.--Oh! will your father never come?"

"Tom hurt? It can't be--no, no!" protested Isobel. But she too looked
and saw. After a time she added breathlessly: "It can't be so bad!
Lafe is helping him to rise.... They are starting this way--to the
foot of the wall! They will be climbing up!"

"But if his leg is injured!" differed Genevieve.

Again they waited. Presently the fire scattered, and a streak of flame
traveled across the cañon to a point beneath them. Soon the red spot
of a new fire glowed in the shadows so directly under them that a
pebble dropped from their fingers must have grazed down the precipices
and fallen into the flames.

After several minutes of alternate peering through the glasses,
Genevieve handed them back to Isobel for the third time, and rose to
go to her baby.

"It is Tom alone," she said, divining the truth. "Lafayette has helped
him to the best place they could find, and now he is coming up to us
for help."

When she had fed the baby and soothed him to sleep, she laid out
bandages and salve, set a full coffeepot on the fire started by Gowan,
and examined the cream and eggs brought back by the puncher on his
second night trip to the ranch.

Nearly an hour had passed when Isobel called in joyous excitement: "I
see him! I see him! Down there where the sunlight slants on the rocks.
Oh! how bravely! how swiftly he climbs!"

Genevieve went to take the glasses and look. Several moments were lost
before she could locate the tiny figure creeping up that stairway of
the giants. But, once she had fixed the glasses upon him, she could
see him clearly. Isobel had well expressed it when she said that he
was climbing swiftly and bravely. Running along shelves, clambering
ledges, following up the crevices that offered the best foothold, the
tattered climber fought his dizzy way upwards, upwards, ever upwards!

Rarely, after some particularly hard scramble, he flung himself down
on a shelf or on one of the steps of the Titanic ladder, to rest and
summon energy for another upward rush. His good fortune seemed as
marvelous as his endurance and daring. He never once slipped and never
once had to turn back from an ascent. As if guided by instinct or
divine intuition, he chose always the safest, the least difficult, the
most continuously scalable way on all that perilous pitch.

So swift an ascent was beyond the ordinary powers of man. It could
have been made only by a maniac or by one to whom great passion had
given command of those latent forces of the body that enable the
maniac to fling strong men about like children. Long before the
climber reached the top of that terrible ladder, his hands were torn
and bleeding, the tattered garments were half rent from his limbs and
body, his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets.

Yet ever he climbed, ledge above ledge, crevice after crevice, until
at last only one steep pitch rose above him. A rope came sliding down
the rock. A voice--the sweetest voice in all the wide world of
sunshine and life--called to him. It sounded very far away, farther
than the bounds of reality, yet he heard and obeyed. He slipped the
loop of the rope down over his shoulders and about his heaving
forebody. Then suddenly his labor was lightened. His leaden body
became winged. It floated upwards.

When he came to himself, a bitter refreshing wetness was soothing his
parched mouth and black swollen tongue; gentle fingers were spreading
balm on his torn hands; the loveliest face of earth or heaven was
downbent over him, its tender blue eyes brimming with tears of
compassion and love. Softly his head and shoulders were raised, and
hot coffee was poured down his throat as fast as he could swallow.

He half roused from his daze. The swollen, cracked lips moved in
faintly muttered words: "Leg broken--sends love--doing fine--project
feasible--irrigation--no food--must rest--go down again."

The eyes of the two ministering angels met. Genevieve bent down and
pressed her lips to the purple, swollen-veined forehead. The heavy
lids closed over the sunken eyes; but before he lapsed into the torpid
sleep of exhaustion that fell upon him, the two succeeded in feeding
him several spoonfuls of raw egg beaten in cream. He then sank into
utter unconsciousness.

Flaccid and inert as a corpse, he lay outstretched on the grassy slope
while they bound up the cuts and bruises on his naked arms and
shoulders and cut the broken, gaping boots from his bruised feet. His
legs, doubly protected by the tough leather chapareras and thick
riding leggins, had fared less cruelly than his arms, but his knees
were raw and bleeding where the chaps had worn through on the rocks.



CHAPTER XXX

LURKING BEASTS


The moment that he had helped haul the climber to safety Gowan had
ridden away with the horses to the camp. He now came jogging back with
the tent and all else that they had not been carrying with them in
their skirting of the cañon edge. He unloaded the packs and hastened
to pitch the tent.

As he was finishing, Isobel called to him sharply. "What are you doing
there, Kid? That can wait. Come here."

"Yes, Miss Chuckie," he replied with ready obedience. But when he came
down the slope to the little group, his mouth was like a thin gash
across his lean jaws. He stared coldly at Ashton between narrowed
lids. "Want me to help tote him up by the fire?" he asked.

"No!" she replied. "It is Tom! He is down there--his leg broken--and
no food! You must go down to him."

"Go down?" queried the puncher. "What good would that do? I couldn't
help him with that climb. He weighs a good two hundred."

"You can take food down to him and let him know that help is coming.
You must!"

Gowan looked sullenly at the unconscious man. "Sorry, Miss Chuckie.
It's no go. I ain't a mountain sheep."

"But _he_ came up!"

"That's different. It's a sight easier going up cliffs than climbing
down. No, you'll have to excuse me, Miss Chuckie."

The girl flamed with indignant anger. "You coward! You saw him come
up, after all that time down in those fearful depths--after fighting
his way all those miles along the terrible river--yet you dare not go
down! You coward! you quitter!"

The puncher's face turned a sickly yellow, and he seemed to shrink in
on himself. His voice sank to a husky whisper: "You can say that, Miss
Chuckie! Any man say it, he'd be dead before now. If you want to know,
I've got a mighty good reason for not wanting to go down. It ain't
that I'm afraid. You can bank on that. It's something else. I'll go
quick enough--but it's got to be on one condition. You've got to
promise to marry me."

"_Marry you?_"

"Yes. You know how I've felt towards you all these years. Promise to
marry me, and I'll go to hell and back for you. I'll do anything for
you. I'll save him!"

"You cur! You'd force me to bargain myself to you!" she cried, fairly
beside herself with righteous fury. "I thought you a man! You cur--you
cowardly cur!"

Gowan turned from her and walked rapidly away along the cañon edge,
his head hunched between his shoulders, his hands downstretched at his
thighs, the fingers crooked convulsively.

"Oh!" gasped Genevieve. "You've driven him away! Call him back! We
need him! He must go for help!"

The words shocked the girl out of her rash anger. Her flushed face
whitened with fear. "Kid!" she screamed. "Come back, Kid! You must go
to the ranch--bring the men!"

The cry of appeal should have brought him back to her on the run. It
pierced high above the booming reverberations of the cañon. Yet he
paid no heed. He neither halted nor paused nor even looked back. If
anything, he hurried away faster than before.

"Kid! dear Kid! forgive me! Come back and help us!" shrieked the
girl.

He kept on down along the cañon rim, his chin sunk on his breast, his
downstretched hands bent like claws. She ran a little way after him;
only to flutter back again, wringing her hands, distracted. "What
shall we do? what shall we do?"

"Be quiet, dear--be quiet!" urged Genevieve. "You've driven him away.
We must do the best we can. You must go yourself. I can stay and
watch--"

"No, no!" cried Isobel. "The way he looked at Lafe!--I dare not go! He
may come back--and I not here!"

She knelt to place her trembling hand on Ashton's forehead.

Genevieve looked at the setting sun. "There is no time to lose," she
said. "Saddle my horse while I nurse Baby. I cannot take him with me
down the mountain, in the dark."

"Genevieve! You dare go--at night?"

"Someone must bring help, else Tom--all alone down in that dreadful
chasm--!"

"But you may lose the way! I will go!"

"No, no, you must stay, Belle. I saw his eyes. He may come back. I
could not protect Lafayette, but you--There is no other way. I must
leave Baby, and go."

Wondering at the courage of the young mother, Isobel ran to saddle the
oldest of the picketed horses. He was the slowest of them all, but he
was surefooted and steady and very wise. When she brought him down the
ridge, Genevieve placed the newly fed baby in her arms and went with
the glasses to peer down the sheer precipices. There in the blackness
so far beneath her the glowing fire illuminated an outstretched form.
It was her husband, lying flat on his back and gazing up at the
heights. Almost she could fancy that he saw her as she saw him.

But she did not linger. Time was too precious. She dropped him a kiss,
and ran to spring upon the waiting pony. She did not pause even to
kiss the big-eyed baby. The thirsty pony needed no urging to start at
a lively jog up the slope of the first ridge. As he topped the crest
and broke into a lope the sun dipped below the western edge of High
Mesa. A few seconds later horse and rider disappeared from Isobel's
anxious gaze down the far side of the ridge.

"Old Buck knows the trail," murmured the girl. "He knows he is headed
for the waterhole. Yet if--if he _should_ lose the trail!"

A spasm of fear sent her hand to the pistol hilt under the fold of her
skirt and twisted her head about. She glared along the cañon rim.
Gowan was still striding away from her. She watched him fixedly, her
hand clutched fast on the hilt of her pistol, until he disappeared
around a mass of rocks.

The whinnying of the horses after their companion at last drew her
attention. They had not been watered since the previous evening.
Cuddling close the frightened baby, the girl fetched a basin and one
of the water cans, to sponge out the dusty nostrils of the animals and
give each two or three swallows.

Then, when she had soothed the fretful child to sleep, she laid him in
a snug nest of blankets between a rock and a fallen tree, and went to
watch beside Ashton. He lay as she had left him, in a stupor of sleep
and exhaustion.

Gradually the twilight faded. Stars began to twinkle in the cloudless
sky. She watched and waited while the dusk deepened. When she could
barely see objects a few yards away, she stooped over the unconscious
man and, putting out all her supple young strength, half dragged, half
carried him up the slope to a hiding place that she had chosen, in
under an overhanging ledge. There she spread pine needles and blankets
on the soft mold and lifted him upon them, so that nothing hard should
press against his wounds.

The fire had burned low. It was a full hundred yards away from the
hiding place. She went to replenish it and take a hasty look down at
that outstretched form in the depths. But soon she stole back to the
sleeping man under the rock, going, as she had come, by a roundabout
way in the darkness.

Night settled down close and dense over the plateau. The girl crouched
beside the sleeper, her eyes peering out into the blackness, the drawn
pistol ready in her hand. She could see only a few feet in the dim
starlight. But her ears, accustomed to the dull monotone of the
booming cañon, heard every sound--the click of the horses' hoofs, even
the munching of the nearest one, the hoot of the owls that flitted
overhead, the distant yelps and wails of coyotes.

An hour passed, two hours--a third. She crept around to replenish the
fire. When she returned she heard the baby fretting. Swiftly she
groped her way to him and carried him to the hiding place, to quiet
his outcry. He sucked in a little of the beaten egg and cream that she
had ready for Ashton. It satisfied his hunger, and he fell asleep,
clasped against her soft warm bosom. She crouched down with him in her
lap, her right hand again clasped on the pistol hilt, ready for the
expected attack.

She waited as before, silent, motionless, every sense alert. Another
hour dragged by, and another. Midnight passed. Suddenly, on the ridge
slope above her, one of the horses snorted and plunged. She raised the
pistol. The horse became quiet. But something came gliding around the
rocks, a low form vaguely outlined in the darkness. It might have been
a creeping man. It turned towards the hiding place. The girl found
herself looking into a pair of glaring eyes. She thrust out the
pistol, with her forefinger pointing along the barrel. The darkness
was too deep for her to aim by the sights.

Before she could press the trigger, the beast bounded away, with a
snarl far deeper, far more ferocious than any coyote could have
uttered. The girl did not fire. The wolf had seen the glint of her
pistol barrel and had fled. He would not return. But she shuddered and
drew the sleeping baby close as she thought of what might have
happened had she left him alone in the nest between the rock and the
tree.

The precious, helpless child! He was of her own blood, the son of her
strong, splendid brother ... of her brother, lying down there in those
awful depths, helpless--in agony!...



CHAPTER XXXI

CONFESSIONS


A groping hand touched her arm; bandaged fingers sought to feel who
she was. Behind her sounded a drowsy incoherent murmur. The snarl of
the wolf had roused the sleeper from his torpor.

"Hush--hush!" she whispered. "It is all well. I am here by you. Lie
still."

"Isobel!" he murmured. "Isobel!"

"Yes, dear!" she soothed. "I am here. Rest--go to sleep again. All is
well."

"All is--?" He roused a little more. "You say--Then he is safe! They
have brought him up--out of that hell!"

She could not lie outright. "He will soon be safe. By morning help
will have come to us. As soon as the men can see to go down, they will
descend for him. They will bring him up the way that you have shown
us!"

Her voice quivered with pride of what he had done. She drew up his
hand and pressed her lips tenderly upon the bandages.

Had the caress been a burn, he could not have more quickly snatched
the hand away. He sought to rise, and struck his head against the
overhanging rock.

"Where am I? Let me out!" he said.

"No, you must not! Lie still! You must not!" she remonstrated.

"Lie still?" he repeated. "Lie still! with him down there--alone!"

"But it is night--midnight. It will be hours before even the moon
rises."

"And he down there--alone! Help me make ready. I am going down to
him."

"Going down? But you cannot! It is midnight!"

"There is a lantern. I shall take that. It will be easier than in the
daytime, for I shall not see those sickening precipices below."

He sought to creep out past her. She clutched his arm.

"No, no! do not go! There is no need! Wait until they come. You have
done your share--far more than your share! Wait!"

"I cannot," he replied. "I must go down to him. I have no right to be
up here, and he still down there."

"You must!" she urged, clinging tighter to his arm. "You may fall. I
am afraid! I cannot bear it! Do not go! Stay with me--say that you
will stay with me--dearest!"

"Good God!" he cried, tearing himself away from her, "To let you say
it--say it to me!"

"Dearest!" she repeated. "Dearest, do not go! There is no need! I
cannot bear it! Do not go!"

"No need? My God! When I could fling myself over, if it were not for
him! To have let you say it--to me--to a liar! thief! murderer!"

"Dearest!" she whispered. "Hush! You are delirious--you do not
know--"

"It is you who do not know!" he cried. "But you shall--everything--all
my cowardly baseness!" The confession burst from him in a torrent of
self-denunciation--"That trip to town, when we went to fetch them, I
lied to you about those bridge plans. It was not true that I found
them. He handed them to me. He took no receipt. I looked at them and
saw how wonderful they were. I stole them. My father had threatened to
cast me off if I did not do something worth while. I was desperate. So
I stole your brother's plans. I copied them--"

"You know about Tom!" she interrupted. "But of course. You saw me tell
him, there at the ravine."

"I saw you put your arms about his neck and kiss him; but I did not
hear--I did not see the truth. I believed--that is the worst of it
all--I believed it possible that you--_you_--!... That devil Gowan....
But that is no excuse. Had I not already doubted you.... And I went
down--down into hell, with only one purpose--to make certain that he
never should come up again!"

"Dear Christ!" whispered the girl--"Dear Christ! He has gone mad!"

"No, Isobel," he said, his voice slow and dead with the calm of utter
despair, "I am not mad. I have never been mad except for a little
while after you put your arms about his neck. No--For years I was a
fool, a profligate fool, wasting my life as I wasted all those
thousands of dollars that I had not earned. I turned thief--a
despicable sneak thief. At last the dirty crime found me out. I
received a small share of the punishment that I deserved. Then you
took me in--without question--treated me as a man. God knows I tried
to be one!"

"You were!--you are!" she broke in. "This is all a mistake--a cruel,
hideous mistake!"

"I tried to go," he went on unflinchingly. "You urged me to stay. I
was weak. I could not force myself to leave you."

"Because--because!" she murmured.

"All the more reason why I should have gone," he replied. "But I was
weak, unfit. I lied to you and won your pity. You gave me the chance
to stay and prove myself what I am. Down there, when he told me what I
should have guessed--what I must have guessed had not my own baseness
blinded me to the truth--when he told me he was your brother, I saw
myself, my real self,--my shriveled, black, hellish soul. Now you see
why I must go down again. I can never make reparation for what I have
done. But I can at least go down to him."

"You take all the blame on yourself!" she protested. "What if I had
confessed my secret, there at the first, when Tom sprang down from the
car and I knew him."

"If you had told, then I should not have been tempted to doubt you,
and I should have gone on, it might have been forever, with that lie
and that theft between us--and I should not have been forced to see,
as I now see, my absolute unworthiness of you."

"Of me!" she cried shrilly, and she burst into wild hysterical
laughter. It broke off as abruptly as it began. "Unworthy of me--of
me? the daughter of a drunken mother, the sister of a girl who--" A
sob choked her. She went on desperately: "You have told me all. But
I--do you not wonder why I kept silent--why I denied Mary by my
silence? You say you sought to harm Tom--down there. You did not know
he was my brother. You thought he would harm me. Is it not so?"

"I doubted you!"

"Why? Because I failed to tell the truth. I feared to hurt him--to
make trouble between him and his rich, high-bred wife. As if I should
not have known better the moment I saw Genevieve! Dear sister! she
knows all. But you--Either I should have spoken, or I should have
hidden all my fondness for him. But I could not hide my love for
him--and I was ashamed to tell."

"Ashamed--you?"

"We lived in the slums. They told me my father was a big man, a man
such as Tom is now. He was a railroad engineer. He was killed when I
was a baby. Then we sank into the slums. My mother--she died when I
was twelve. There was then only Mary and I and Tom. He could make only
a little, working at odd jobs. Mary and I worked in a factory. Even
she was under age. When I was going on fourteen there came a terrible
winter when thousands were out of work. We almost starved."

"You--starved!" murmured Ashton. "Starved! And I was starting in at
college, flinging away money!"

"Tom tried to force people to let him work," the girl went on
drearily. "He was violent. They put him in jail. Soon Mary and I had
nothing left. There was no work for us. We had sold everything that
anyone would buy. The rent was overdue. They turned us out--on the
streets.... I was too young; but Mary.... She found a place where I
could stay. They were decent people, but hard....

"The weather was bitterly cold. She was taken sick. When the people
with whom I was staying heard what she had done, they refused to help.
I begged in the street. I was very small and thin. The--the beasts did
not trouble me. Then, when Mary was very sick, I met Daddy. I begged
from him. He did not give me a nickel and pass on. He stopped and made
me talk--he made me take him to Mary.

"He had her moved to the best hospital.... It was too late.... I also
had pneumonia. They said I would die. But Daddy brought me home just
as soon as I could be moved. The railroad was then a hundred miles
from Dry Mesa. But he kept me wrapped in furs, and all the way he
carried me in his arms. Do you wonder why I love him so?... That is
all. You see now why I shrank from telling--why I denied Mary."

"She is in Heaven," said Ashton--"in Heaven, where some day you will
go. But I--I--" She could see no more than the vague blotch of his
white face in the darkness, but his voice told her the anguish of his
look. "He was right--your brother. He told me that we always take with
us the heaven or the hell that we each have made for ourselves.... I
have lost you.... You know now why I am going down to do the little
that I can do."

"You are going down?" she asked wonderingly. "You still say that you
are going down? Yet I have told you about--Mary!"

"If you were she, I still would be utterly unfit to look you in the
face. I shall go to the camp for the lantern. There were other gloves
and some of my clothing."

"They are all here."

"Show me where they are, and get ready the lantern and bandages and a
sack of food."

"You are going down," she acquiesced. "You are going to Tom. And you
are coming up with him--to me!"

"That is too much. I doubted you. Where are those things? He is
waiting down there alone."

"Here is his child, my nephew," she said. "Hold him while I go for
what you need. Here is my pistol. The man who shot you, who twice
tried to murder you--he is somewhere up here. He will not harm me. But
you--If he comes creeping in on you here, shoot him as you would shoot
a coyote."

"The man who shot me? He is up here?"

"You have seen him every day since that first day I met you," replied
the girl. "His name is Gowan."

"_Gowan?_"

"Kid Gowan, murderer! I saw his eyes as he looked at you, lying down
there on the brink. Then I knew."

"But--if he--Where is Genevieve? I cannot go and leave you alone."

"You can--you must! He is a coward. He dare not follow you down that
terrible place. No harm will come to me if you are gone. But if he
comes back and finds you--do you not see that if he kills you, he must
also kill me? But in the morning, when the others come--Oh, why
hasn't Daddy come? All this long time since you went down into the
depths, and he not with us! If only he were here!"

"Genevieve?" again inquired Ashton.

"She has gone. She started down the mountain for help when Kid went
away. I'm so afraid for you, dear! He may be creeping back now--he may
be waiting already, close by here, in the darkness. But if he has not
heard our voices, he will go first to where you came up, and then to
the tent. Keep quiet until I return. Wait; here is cream and egg.
Drink it all."

When he had drained the bowl that she held to his lips, she crept
away. Ashton sat still, the warm, soft little body of the sleeping
baby in his arms, the pistol in his bandaged right hand. In her
excitement Isobel had forgotten his bound fingers. If Gowan had come
on him then, he would have put the baby back in under the rock, and
faced the puncher's revolver with a smile. What had he now to live
for? He had lost her. She had not yet grasped the baseness of what he
had thought and done. As soon as she realized ... And he could never
forgive himself.



CHAPTER XXXII

OVER THE BRINK


Isobel came back to him, noiselessly gliding around through the
darkness. She set down the bundle she was carrying, and hung blankets
over the entrance of the little cave. She then lighted the lantern. He
held out his bound hands. She unbound them enough for him to use his
fingers, and taking the baby and the pistol, crouched down, with her
ear close to the screening blankets, while he exchanged his tattered
clothes for those she had brought to him.

There were also his change of boots and a pair of Blake's gauntlet
gloves, into which he was able to force his slender fingers without
removing the remaining bandages. Isobel had already bound up into a
kind of knapsack the food and clothing and first-aid package that he
was to take down to her injured brother. He slung it upon his back,
and whispered that he was ready.

She nestled the baby in the warm blankets on which he had lain,
wrapped a blanket about the lantern, and led him cautiously down to
the brink of the chasm. Dark as was the night about them, it was
bright compared with the intense blackness of that profound abyss.
The girl caught his arm and shrank back from the edge.

"You will not fall? you are certain you will not fall?" she
whispered.

"I cannot fall," he answered with calm conviction. "He needs me. I am
going down to him. Besides, it will be easier with the lantern than if
I could see below."

"Do not uncover the light until you are down over the edge.--Wait!"

She stooped to knot the rope that he had brought up from the depths,
to the lariats with which he had been dragged up the last ledges. She
looped the end about his waist.

"There," she said. "I shall at least be able to help you down the
first fifty yards."

"God bless you and keep you! Good-by!" he murmured in a choking voice,
and he hastily crept down to slip over the first ledge of that
night-shrouded Cyclopean ladder.

"Lafe!" she whispered. "Surely you do not mean to go without first
telling me--I cannot let you go until--If you should fall! Wait,
dearest! Kiss me--tell me that you--Oh, if you should fall!"

"I will not fall; I cannot. Good-by!"

The dim white blotch of his face disappeared below the verge. The line
jerked through the girl's hands. She clutched it with frantic
strength and flung herself back with her feet braced against a point
of rock. After a moment of tense straining, the rope slackened, and
his voice came up to her over the ledge: "Pay out, please. It's all
right. I've found a crevice."

She eased off on the line a few inches at a time, but always keeping
it taut and always holding herself braced for a sudden jerk. At last
the end came into her hand. She had to lie out on the rim-rock and
call down to him. He called back in a tone of quiet assurance. The
line slackened. He had cast it loose. The lantern glowed out in the
blackness and showed him standing on a narrow shelf.

As Isobel bent lower to gaze at him, a frightful scream rang out above
the booming of the cañon. It was a shriek such as a woman would utter
in mortal fear. The girl drew back from the verge, her hair stiffening
with horror. Could it be possible that Genevieve had lost her way and
was wandering back to camp, and that Gowan--

Again the fearful scream pierced the air. Isobel looked quickly across
towards the far side of the cañon. She could see nothing, but she drew
in a deep sigh of relief. The second cry had told her that it was only
a mountain lion, over on the other brink of the chasm.

When she again looked down at Ashton he was descending a crevice with
a rapidity that brought her heart into her mouth. Yet there was no
hurry in his quick movements, and every little while he paused on a
shelf to peer at the steep slope immediately below him. Soon the
circle of lantern light became smaller and dimmer to the anxious
watcher above. Steadily it waned until all she could see was a little
point of light far down in the darkness--and always it grew smaller
and fainter.

Lying there with her bosom pressed against the hard stone, her
straining eyes fixed on that lessening point of light, she had lost
all count of time. Her whole soul was in her eyes, watching, watching,
watching lest that tiny light should suddenly shoot down like a meteor
and vanish in the darkness. Many times it disappeared, but never in
swift downward flight, and always it reappeared.

Not until the moon came gliding up above the lofty white crests of the
snowy range did she think of aught else than that speck of light and
of him who was bearing it down into the black depths. But the glint of
moonlight on a crystalline stone broke her steadfast gaze. Before she
could again fix it on the faint point of lantern light a sound that
had been knocking at the threshold of her consciousness at last made
itself heard. It was an intermittent clinking as of steel on stone.

She looked around, thinking that one of the horses was walking along
the ridge slope with a loose shoe. But all were standing motionless in
the moonlight, dozing. Again she heard the click, and this time she
located the direction from which it came. She looked at the split rock
on the edge of the sheer drop. From beside it she had peered down
through the field glasses at the outstretched form of her brother, far
beneath in the cañon bottom.

The sound came from that rock. She stared at the side of the
frost-split fragment with dilated eyes. The crack between the loose
outer bowlder and the main mass showed very black and wide in the
moonlight. Could it be possible that it had widened--that it was
slipping over? And her brother down there beneath it!...

                  *       *       *       *       *

By setting wedge-shaped stones in the top of the cleft rock and prying
with the crowbar, Gowan had gradually canted the top of the loose
outer bowlder towards the edge of the precipice. It had only to topple
forward in order to plunge down the cañon wall. He was working as
silently as he could, but with a fierce eagerness that caused an
occasional slip of the crowbar on the rock.

Although the great block of stone weighed over two tons, its base was
small and rounded, and the mass behind it gave him leverage for his
bar. Every inch that he pried it forward, the stones slipped farther
down into the widening crack and held the vantage he had gained.
Already the bowlder had been pushed out at the top many inches. It
was almost balanced. The time had come to see if he could not pry it
over with a single heave.

He did not propose to fall over after the rock. He turned his face to
the brink, set the end of the bar in the crevice, and braced himself
to heave backwards on the outer end. He put his weight on it and
pulled. He could feel the rock give--the top was moving outward. A
little more, and it must topple over.

Close behind him spoke a voice so hoarse and low-pitched with horror
that it sounded like a man's--"Drop that bar! drop it!"

With the swiftness of a wolf, he bounded sideways along the rim-rock.
In the same lightning movement, he whirled face about and whipped his
Colt's from its holster. His finger was crooking against the trigger
before he saw who it was that confronted him. The hammer fell in the
same instant that he twitched the muzzle up and sideways. The heavy
bullet scorched the girl's cheek.

Above the crashing report rose a wild cry, "Miss Chuckie--God!"

Through the blinding, stinging powder-smoke she saw him stagger
backwards as if to flee from what he thought he had done. His foot
went down over the sharp edge. He flung up his hands and dropped into
the abyss.

She did not shriek. She could not. Her tongue clove to the roof of
her mouth. Her heart stopped beating. She crumpled down and lay
gasping. But the fascination of horror spurred her to struggle to her
knees and creep over to peer down from the place where he had fallen.

Beneath her was only blank, utter darkness. No sound came up out of
the deep except only that ceaseless reverberation of the hidden river.
Twelve hundred feet down, the falling man had struck glancingly upon
the smooth side of an out-jutting rock and his crushed body had been
flung far out and sideways. It plunged into the rapids below the
barrier and was borne away down the cañon. But this the girl could not
have seen even in midday.

She looked for the red star of the distant fire where she knew her
brother was lying. She could not see it. The point upon which the
falling man had struck shut off her view. The other side of the split
rock was where she and Genevieve had looked down through the glasses
and seen Blake. She failed to realize the difference in the change of
position. Her horror deepened. She thought that Gowan had hurled
straight down to the bottom with all the terrific velocity of that
sheer drop, and that he had plunged upon the fire and upon the dear
form outstretched beside it, to crush and mangle and be crushed and
mangled. The thought was too frightful for human endurance.

A long time she lay in a swoon, her head on the very edge of the
brink. It was the wailing of the hungry, frightened baby that at last
called her back to life and action. She dragged herself up around to
the hiding place. The neglected baby was not easy to quiet. The cream
had soured. There was nothing that she could give him except water.
All the eggs that were left she had put in the knapsack that Ashton
was carrying down to her brother. The baby now showed the full reflex
of his mother's long hours of anxiety and fear. He fretted and cried
and would not be comforted.

The chill of approaching dawn forced her to rebuild the outburnt fire.
The warm glow and the play of the flames diverted the child and hushed
his outcry. Holding him so that he might continue to watch the dancing
tongues of fire, the girl sat motionless, going over and over again in
her mind all that had occurred since the tattered, bleeding,
purple-faced climber had come straining up out of the depths.... It
could not have happened--it was all a hideous dream.... Would they
never come? Must she sit here forever--alone!



CHAPTER XXXIII

FRIENDS IN NEED


Because of the moonlight she did not heed the graying of the east. But
the whinnying of the picketed horses roused her from the apathy of
misery into which she had sunk. She stood up and looked along the
ridge. A small roundish object appeared above the crest--then others.
They rose quickly--the heads of riders spurring their horses up the
far side of the ridge.

Singly, in pairs, in groups, the rescuers burst up into view and came
loping down to her, shouting and waving. In the lead rode her father
and the sheriff; in the midst Genevieve, between two attendant young
punchers. In all, there were nearly two dozen eager, resolute men,
everyone an admiring friend of Miss Chuckie, everyone zealous to serve
her and hers.

The girl stood waiting beside the fire. She had tried to run to meet
them and found that she could not move. The suddenness of their coming
after all that fearful night of waiting seemed to numb her limbs.

They rushed down upon her, waving, shouting questions. Her father, on
Rocket, was the first to reach her. He sprang off and ran to put his
arm about her quivering shoulders.

"Honey! it's all right now!" he assured her. "We're here with
everything that's needed. We'll soon yank him up out of that hole!"

The baby, frightened by the rush and tumult of the off-leaping riders,
began to scream. Someone took him from the girl's arms and handed him
to his mother as she was lifted down out of her saddle. Isobel pressed
her face against her father's sweaty breast.

"Hold on, Miss Chuckie!" sang out one of the men. "Don't let go yet.
Where's Gowan--Kid Gowan?"

She shuddered convulsively, yet managed to reply: "He--was trying
to--to roll the rock down. Tom, my brother, is right below it. I heard
and came to see. His back was to me. I could not shoot--I could not
raise my pistol. When I spoke, he whirled and shot at me. He--"

"Kid--shot at you?" cried Knowles. "At you? 'Tain't possible!"

"He didn't mean to. He fired before he saw who I was. Then he saw. He
forgot everything--everything except that he had shot at me. He backed
off--there--over the edge!"

A sudden hush fell on the excited crowd. One man went to peer down
from the place to which the girl had pointed. He came back softly.
"Same place where the last bunch of sheep went over," he said. "Rest
of us were pretty sick--ready to quit. He kept after them until the
last ewe jumped. Said they'd gone to hell, where they belonged."

"He's the one that's gone there!" said the sheriff. "Look at the way
this bowlder is pried loose, ready to roll over! Once heard tell that
his real dad was Billie the Kid. Some of you mayn't have heard tell of
Billie. He was the coldest blooded, promiscuous murderer of them days
when we used to drive from Texas to Montana and the boys used to
shoot-up towns and each other just for fun. Well, this Kid Gowan has
got Billie's eyes and slit mouth. Can't say I ever took to him, but
seeing as how he was a crack-up puncher and Wes Knowles' foreman--"

"That's it! I can't understand it--Kid has been almost like a son to
me all these years!" complained Knowles perplexedly. He explained to
his daughter. "You're wondering why I didn't come sooner, honey. Those
Utes had been let go. We had to follow them up a long ways. When we
got them back and put them on that trail from the waterhole, they
found it led straight across the flats to where the horses and wagon
had stood. There the tracks of the Indian shoes ended, and the tracks
of shod hoofs led off into the brush. We followed them all the way
'round to the lower waterhole and up the lower creek to the ranch, and
there they took us right to Rocket's heels. The Jap said Kid had his
saddle in the wagon when he came back from town, and he had a new hat.
Mr. Blake did some hot shooting at that assassin on the hill. So,
putting two and two together--"

"Oh, Daddy, I know--I knew when I saw him look at Lafe!"

"The--" Knowles choked back the epithet. "Yes, Mrs. Blake told us
about that--and about her husband! Jumping Jehosaphat! Think of his
being your brother! You must have been plumb locoed, to keep still
about that! Why didn't you tell us, honey?--leastways me, your
Daddy!"

"I--I--But about Genevieve? Tell me. You could have come sooner if
she--Was she lost? I was sure that pony--"

"Better have given her a fast one. It came on so dark before he was
half down the mountain that she was knocked out of the saddle by a
branch. He went on down to the waterhole. She tried to catch
him--couldn't. Got lost and wandered all around before she got down to
the waterhole and caught him. We had got to the ranch at dusk, and all
the posse had turned in for the night. She came loping down the divide
just after moonrise. We started as soon as we could rake up all the
picket-pins and rope. Wanted Mrs. Blake to wait and come on later; but
talk about grit! We simply couldn't make her stay behind."

Isobel thrust herself free from her father's arms and darted out
through the circle of rugged, earnest-faced punchers and cowmen to
where Genevieve lay resting with the baby clasped to her bosom.

"Dear! you poor dear!" she murmured, kneeling to stroke the head of
the weary young mother.

"I shall soon be rested," replied Genevieve. "How about Tom? Have you
kept watch of him? Has he moved?"

The girl shrank back, unable to face her sister-in-law's eager look.

"No--I--The fire--it--it disappeared, and I could not see."

Genevieve smiled, and the reddening dawn lent a trace of color to her
pale face. "It was a good sign. He could not have been suffering so
much. He must have slept, and the fire died down."

"Oh! you think that was it?" sighed Isobel. "I feared--"

She did not say what it was she had feared. As she paused Genevieve
looked up into her agitated face and asked quickly: "But Lafayette? Is
he still sleeping?"

"Yes, where's Lafe, honey?" inquired Knowles. "We'll have to roust him
out to tell us just what way he came up."

"Haven't I told you?" cried Isobel, her head still in a whirl of
conflicting emotions. Then, as tersely and quietly as her father would
have related it, she told the bald facts of how Ashton had been
wakened by the snarl of the wolf, how he had insisted upon going back
to help her brother, and how he had gone down into the darkness, the
pack and lantern slung over his shoulder.

"By--James!" vowed Knowles, when she had finished. "Any man on the
Western Slope say that boy's not acclimated, he'd better look for
another climate himself."

"Gentleman," the sheriff addressed the exclaiming crowd, "you heard
tell what the little lady had to say about her husband and this Lafe
Ashton going down into Deep Cañon, where no man ever went before. Now
Miss Chuckie has told us again how Ashton climbed up here, where no
man in this section had a notion anything short of a mountain sheep
could climb. Well, what does the gritty kid do but turn round and
climb down again--in the dark, mind you! They're down there now, both
of them--down in the bottom of Deep Cañon. We called them tenderfeet,
that day when Mr. Blake honored our county seat by sidetracking his
palatial car. Boys, down there in that hole are the two nerviest men I
ever heard tell about. One of 'em has a broken leg. The other has
broke the trail for us. I ask for volunteers to go down with me and
yank 'em up out of there. Gentlemen, who offers?"

Instantly the crowd surged forward. Every man shouted, whooped,
struggled to thrust himself ahead of the others and force the
acceptance of his services on the sheriff.

"Hold on, boys!" he remonstrated. "Just hold your hawsses. I didn't
ask for a stampede. You can't all go down. Last man over might get in
a hurry to catch the first, and start a manslide."

"I vote we set a thirty-year limit," put in one of the younger
punchers.

This raised a clamor of dissent from the older men.

"Tell you what," shouted another. "Let Miss Chuckie cut out the lucky
ones."

"That's the ticket--Now you're talking!" Every man shouted approval,
and fell silent as Isobel sprang up from beside Genevieve.

"Friends!" she exclaimed, her eyes radiant, "it's such times as these
that makes life grand! I believe six of you would be enough, but I'll
make it ten. First, I'm going to bar everyone who has a wife or
children."

"That doesn't include me, honey," hastily protested her father.

"Then you come in the next--none over thirty-five nor under twenty."

A groan arose from some of the youngsters, but the older men took
their disappointment in stolid silence. She went on with calm
decisiveness: "Now those of you that have done any considerable
mountain climbing afoot this summer, please step this way."

Two members of a recently disbanded surveying party, four punchers who
had tried their luck at prospecting on the snowy range, and three wild
horse hunters sprang forward in response to the request.

"That's enough," said the sheriff. "I've got to own up to being forty.
But I'm leading this here posse, and I'll eat my hat if I can't
outclimb anything on two legs in this county. String out your ropes,
boys, and pass over all them picket-pins. We'll need a purchase now
and again, I figure, hauling up Mr. Blake. Hustle! Here's the sun
clean up."

Under the brusquely jovial directions of their leader, the lucky nine
divested themselves of spurs and cartridge belts, tied themselves to
the line at intervals of several feet, and promptly started down the
dizzy ledges. The others helped them during the first fifty yards of
descent with the line that Isobel had drawn up after it had been cast
loose by Ashton. They then gathered along the brink, enviously
watching the descent of their companions into the shadowy abyss.

Genevieve came to where Isobel and her father crouched beside the
others. "Thomas will not let me put him down, Belle," she said. "I see
you left the glasses beside the rock. If Lafayette has reached the
bottom safely--"

"If--safely!" echoed Isobel. "Daddy, you look--quick, please!"

Knowles hastened to skirt along the brink to where the little field
glasses lay at the near side of the split rock. The two followed him,
Genevieve smiling with pleasant anticipation, Isobel trembling with
doubt and dread. The cowman stretched out on the rim shelf and peered
over.

"Um-m-m," he muttered. "Can't see anything down there. Too dark yet."

"Look straight below you," said Genevieve.

"Hey?--Uh! By--James! Well, if that ain't a picture now! These sure
are mighty fine little glasses, ma'am. I can see 'em plain as day."

"Them?--you say 'them,' Daddy?" cried Isobel.

"Sure. Come and look for yourself. Guess Lafe is fixing Mr. Blake's
leg.--Which reminds me, honey, that before we left the ranch, Mrs.
Blake had me send for that lunger sawbones that's come to live at
Stockchute. He'll be here, I figure, before or soon after the boys get
Mr. Blake up into God's sunshine."

"Brother Tom, Daddy--you mean my Brother Tom!" joyfully corrected the
girl as she took the glasses.

"Well, you've got to give me time to chew on it, honey. It's come too
sudden for me to take it all in." He stood up and gazed gravely at the
smiling mother and her comforted baby. "Hum-m-m. Then that yearling is
my Chuckie's own blood nephew. Well, ma'am, what do _you_ think of it,
if I may ask?"

"Can't you make it 'Jenny,' Uncle Wes?" asked Genevieve.

He stared at her blankly. "But I didn't adopt him, ma'am--only her."

"He is the brother of your dear daughter, and I am his wife. Come
now," she coaxed, "you must admit that brings me near enough to call
you 'Uncle Wes.'"

"You've got me, ma'am--Jenny. I give in, I throw up the fight. That
irrigation project now--Chuckie's brother can have anything of mine he
asks for. Only there's one thing--you've got to make that yearling say
'Granddad' when he talks to me."

"O-oh!" cooed Genevieve. "To think you feel that way towards him! Of
course he shall say it. And I--Will you not allow me to make it
'Daddy'?"

He could not resist her enticingly upturned lips. He brushed down his
bristly mustache, and bent over awkwardly, to kiss his new daughter.

"Thought you were one of those super-high-toned ladies, m'm--Jenny,"
he remarked.

The cultured child of millions smiled up at him reproachfully. "What!
after I have been with you so long, Daddy? But it's true there was a
time--before Tom taught me that men cannot be judged by mere polish
and veneer, or the lack of polish and veneer."

Isobel, all her doubts and fears allayed, had risen from the
precipice's edge in time to hear Genevieve's reply. She added eagerly:
"Nor should men be judged by what they have been if they have become
something else--if they have climbed up--up out of the depths!"

"Belle! dear Sister Belle! Then he has proved it to you? Oh, I am so
glad for you! He has proved to you that he has climbed--to the
heights."

"To the very heights! I must tell Daddy. Give me Thomas. See, he is
fast asleep, the poor abused little darling! Go and watch them, and
our climbers. They are going down like a string of mountain sheep."

Genevieve placed the baby in his aunt's outstretched arms and went to
look into the abyss through the field glasses. Isobel drew her father
away, out of earshot of the down-peering group of men. She stopped
behind the tent, which Gowan had pitched part way up the slope of the
ridge.

"You want to talk with me about Lafe, honey?" surmised Knowles, as the
girl started to speak and hesitated.

Her cheeks flamed scarlet, but she raised her shyly lowered eyes and
looked up at him with a clear, direct gaze. "Yes, Daddy. He--he loves
me, and I--love him."

"That so?" said Knowles. His eyes contracted. It was his only betrayal
of the wrench she had given the tender heart within his tough
exterior. "Well, I figured it was bound to come some day. I've been
lucky not to lose you any time the last four years."

"You--you do not say anything about him, Daddy."

"Haven't you cut him out of the herd?" he dryly replied. "That's
enough for me, long as I know he's your choice and is square."

"He has nothing; he is very poor."

"He's got the will to work. He'll get there, with you pushing on the
reins. That's how I size him up."

"But, Daddy, he told me he had been bad, very bad."

Knowles searched the girl's face, with a sudden up-leaping of
concern--that vanished as quickly before what he saw in her clear
eyes.

"Might have expected it of you, honey. You stand by him. You've got
sense enough to know what it means when a man thinks enough of a girl
to tell her the wrong things he has done. I was wild, too, when I was
a youngster. There was a girl I thought enough of to tell. She wasn't
your kind, honey. It came near sending me to the devil for good. You
know better. No girl ought to be fool enough to hitch up with a man to
reform him. But if he has already taken a brace and straightened the
kinks out of himself, that's different."

"He has come up, Daddy--out of the depths."

Knowles only half caught her meaning. "Sure he climbed up. That proves
he has the grit and the nerve. He had proved that even better, going
down at the other place. Put any man down there, and he'd make a try
to get out. No, the real test was his going back down again. He might
have come up just for himself. But going down again--that's the proof
of what's in him; that's what proves he's white!"

"Dear Daddy!... But I'm afraid. He thinks he has been too bad ever
to--to marry me. I'm so afraid he'll go away and leave me!"

The cowman straightened up, his eyes glinting with righteous
indignation.

"What! Go 'way and leave you?--when you want him to stay? By--James!
He's going to stay! Don't you worry, honey. He's going to stay, if I
have to rope and hogtie him for you!"

The girl stared into the frowning face of her father. There was no
twinkle in the corner of his eyes. He was absolutely serious. For the
first time in over two days her dimples flashed. Her eyes sparkled
with merriment. Her lips parted. But she checked the gay laugh before
it could burst out.

"Oh!" she reproached herself. "How could I? And they still down
there--and Tom suffering!"

"Tom?" repeated Knowles. "Thomas Blake--your brother! That's why you
got me started reading all those reports and engineering journals.
You guessed it."

"It did not seem possible. Yet I could not help hoping."

"Things do happen our way--sometimes," qualified Knowles. "Mrs.
Blake--Jenny--says Lafe brought up word that the project can be put
through. I meant to fight. But now--he is your brother, and he has
done something no man ever before thought could be done--he has
surveyed Deep Cañon. He has me beat. I've told Mrs.--Jenny straight
out."

"I know he will do what is right by you, dear, dear Daddy."

"He's your brother, honey. That settles it."



CHAPTER XXXIV

RECLAMATION


Even with the mutual assistance that they could give one another, and
with the certain knowledge that the descent was possible, the rescuers
had no easy task following the trail "broken" by Ashton. Their very
numbers prevented them from going down as fast as he had gone. On the
other hand, those on the upper part of the life-line could steady
their companions over ledges and down the steeper crevices, while the
leaders helped the ones who followed by hammering footholds in the
rock and at the very worst places driving in picket-pins to hold the
extra ropes brought down for the purpose.

Still, Deep Cañon was Deep Cañon--the ladder it offered was a ladder
of Titans. Many long hours of waiting passed after the rescuing party
disappeared among the shadows less than a third of the way down the
steep-sloping precipices, before they came struggling upwards again
into view of the anxious watchers on the brink. The sun had circled
well over into the western sky.

There was yet a thousand feet for the rescuers to clamber, hauling
and pushing up in their midst the heavy body of the injured engineer.
All during the first half of the ascent Blake had made the task as
easy as he could by the strenuous exertion of the great strength still
left in his arms and his sound leg. But at last the bandages that
bound his broken leg had chafed in two on the rough ledges; and even
his iron nerve had not long been able to withstand the torture of the
twisting break.

He now dangled helpless in the sling by which they had secured him.
Half the time he was mercifully unconscious; the other half his jaw
was set rigid and his lips were compressed to stifle his groans of
agony. Whenever possible Ashton climbed beside him, striving to ease
the roughness of the ascent.

A full hour before they reached the top, the thin-faced consumptive
surgeon arrived from Stockchute with his splints and medical case.
Waited upon by Isobel and Genevieve, he was fully recovered from the
exertion of his ride when at last the panting rescuers came toiling up
to the brink.

Eager hands dragged the unconscious engineer to the top and carried
him to where the surgeon sat waiting. A few of the watchers lingered
to help the rescuers over the rim; then they, too, hurried away to see
if Blake had survived that terrible ascent. For the last two hundred
feet he had looked like a dead man. There was no cheering. Deep Cañon
had been conquered; but it was yet to be seen whether the victory had
not been won at a disastrous cost.

The sheriff and his nine men sank down on the grassy slope, gasping,
outspent. Ashton collapsed in their midst. He was more than outspent;
he was utterly exhausted. The instant he had seen Blake lifted over
the rim-rock, he had given way to the strain of his frightful
exertions. When a man sent by Isobel came hurrying to the rescuers
with water and coffee, Ashton was unable to move or speak. The man had
to hold him up and pour the coffee down his throat.

One by one, the sheriff and the others staggered up and went to join
the silent group about Blake. No one left that circle of watchers.
They were waiting for the result of the surgeon's efforts to
resuscitate the unconscious man. It was a desperate fight. But the
surgeon had won a place in the forefront of his profession before the
white plague had driven him from New York to this health-giving
wilderness. He knew all the latest, most wonderful methods of
resuscitation. And he had for assistants two who loved and were loved
by his patient.

When at last the announcement was made that the engineer had come out
of his swoon and probably would live, the sheriff and all the members
of the posse not employés of Knowles prepared to ride down to Plum
Creek ranch for the night. The cowman ordered his men to go down with
the party, to water the horses and bring back food and water for the
camp. The surgeon had said that his patient could not be moved for
many days.

But before the party rode off, each man, from the sheriff to the
youngest of the punchers, came to where Ashton was still lying on the
grass, and took his limp hand in theirs. They did not grip it, for the
tattered glove and shredded bandages were wet with blood; nor did they
put into speech what they thought of him. A gruff word or two of
fellowship and parting was all they gave him. Yet he saw and knew that
he had won his place among these reddest blooded of all red-blooded
men.

When one of his fellow employés came to him, leading Rocket, he sought
to summon strength enough to rise, but found that he could not even
turn on his side. He had driven his body to superhuman efforts. He
must now pay the price. At his request, he was lifted up on Rocket,
but he could not hold up his head, much less his body. They laid him
again on the grass, and told Knowles his condition, before they rode
off.

The cowman fetched the surgeon, who felt the pulse of the exhausted
man, gave him a pellet, and hastened back to Blake. In a few moments
Ashton's feeble, racing pulse became calm and slow, the wild whirl of
his thoughts lulled. He sank into profound slumber.

When he awoke the sun of another day was just clearing the great white
peaks of the snowy range. He was outstretched on a soft bed of
blankets spread over a thick layer of pine needles. Above his face
sloped the roof of a small tent. He had been cared for--but there was
no one watching at his bedside. He thought he understood, and smiled
in bitter resignation.

When he moved, racking pains shot through his stiff muscles. Only the
renewed life that surged through his veins enabled him to turn and
twist and bend until the pains subsided to a dull aching and he was
able to command his limbs. His hands were swathed fast in bandages. He
tore them off with his teeth until the fingers were free enough for
use. After much effort, he succeeded in forcing his swollen feet into
his boots.

In the midst Yuki, the Jap cook, appeared before the low entrance of
the tent and sank down on his knees to set a trayful of food beside
the occupant. He hissed a pleasant, "Good morning, Mistah Lafe!" and
was gone before Ashton could reply. The aroma of hot coffee and the
savory smell of chicken broth forced Ashton to forget all else than
that he was famished. Besides the coffee and broth, there was a nogg
of eggs and thick cream slightly flavored with whiskey. He drank one
liquid after the other with the greediness of a starving man; nor did
he stop until he had drained the last drop of all three. He could have
followed with a hearty meal of solids, but the fluids were enough to
stimulate him to renewed energy.

He crept out of his tent and looked around. Up where they had carried
Blake from the precipices stood a larger tent. Near it, under a
low-growing pine, the surgeon lay rolled in a blanket, fast asleep.
Some distance away, in the other direction, Yuki and two of the ranch
hands were building a stone fireplace. Beyond them were picketed three
horses, the nearest of which was Rocket.

Ashton stood up and started rapidly towards the big rawboned horse.
Within a few yards, however, his pace slackened. He faltered and
stopped to look back at the larger tent. After a pause, he turned
about and slowly approached the tent.

As he drew near he heard a murmur of voices barely distinguishable
above the booming of the cañon. Again he faltered and stopped and
stood hesitating. The open front of the tent faced at right angles to
his line of approach. As he hesitated, he saw Isobel's head appear,
veiled in the loose meshes of her chestnut hair. She looked about
towards him, and drew back with a startled little cry.

He turned away to go to Rocket. A quick heavy step sounded behind him.
Knowles had sprung out of the tent and was striding to overtake the
retreating man.

"Hold on, Lafe," he ordered. "Where you going?"

Ashton faced him with quiet resolution. His eyes were dark with
misery, but his once lax mouth was strangely like Blake's in its firm
full lines.

"There's only one thing for me to do, Mr. Knowles," he replied. "I am
going away. Your daughter will understand why."

"How're you going?" asked the cowman, his face impassive.

"I traded with Miss--Miss Knowles for Rocket. Didn't she ever tell
you?"

"Don't matter if she did. Rocket wasn't her hawss to trade."

"Then, unless my pony is up here, I shall walk down as far as the
ranch," said Ashton. He added with bitter humiliation: "It's well I
have learned about Rocket in time. I've done enough, without adding
horse thief to the list. I would have started at once, but I could not
leave until I had asked about Mr. Blake. I wished to thank him for all
that he has done for me."

"All that he--!" echoed Knowles. "If you want to know, it was a mighty
narrow squeak. But we pulled him through. He's awake now and says he's
doing fine. He wants to talk to you."

"I should like very much to do as he wishes, Mr. Knowles, but
I--cannot bear to--meet her. You may realize that it is hard enough at
best."

"_Sho!_ If that's all," readily reassured the cowman, "I'll ask
Chuckie to go out and hide in the bushes."

"But I could not allow that, you know."

"Then I figure you've got to come anyhow. Can't let you go off without
saying good-by to him and Jenny."

"Jenny?" repeated Ashton.

"It's all in the family now," explained Knowles. "Tom has been telling
us how he's got that irrigation project all figured out in his head.
He was saying what he and Jenny had planned to do for us even before
Chuckie let out her secret. Come on and hear the rest."

"I fear I must ask you to excuse me, Mr. Knowles. I--"

"No, you don't," rejoined the cowman. "After what you've done you
can't make me believe you're afraid of anything. You'll come and face
it out before you go."

The misery in Ashton's eyes deepened, and his lips tightened.

"Very well. Since you put it that way, I shall do as you wish, sir."

When he followed Knowles around to the door of the tent, Isobel, who
was hastily braiding her loose hair, drew back into the far corner and
averted her face from him. But Genevieve met him with a radiant smile
and motioned him to kneel down beside her husband.

Blake, with one thick arm crooked about his sleeping son, lay with his
eyes closed. His big square face was drawn and pallid, but there was a
smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. As Ashton knelt beside him
he looked up and lifted his free hand.

"You wouldn't take it--down there," he said.

Ashton flushed. "You know why."

"You'll take it now," said Blake, with quiet confidence.

"I will. I am going away," replied Ashton as he held out his bandaged
hand.

The big palm closed over it in a clasp as gentle as it was strong.

"No, Lafe. I've got hold of you now. I can't let you go. I need you in
my business. We're organizing the Belle Mesa Irrigation and
Development Company.--How do you like my new name for Dry Mesa? Mr.
Knowles puts in the reservoir site in exchange for water on his other
land, a tenth share in the company, and a royalty of half the gold we
placer out of the reservoir bed. As Jenny is to put up all the
capital, she and I will take the lion's share. That will leave a tenth
for you and a tenth for Belle."

Ashton sought to draw his hand away. "It is very good of you, Mr.
Blake. But I cannot accept--"

"Yes, you can. You can't help yourself. Besides, I've an idea a man
always does better by his work when he has a stake in the undertaking.
You're to be our Resident Engineer, you know."

"Resident Engineer?" repeated Ashton, paling and flushing. "Mr. Blake,
I--I--It's impossible that you can mean--"

"Make it 'Tom'! You'll have to brush up on mining engineering, too.
There's the bonanza."

"Oh, yes, Tom!" exclaimed Genevieve. "Tell him about the gold mine."

"I was going to keep still about it till I had the apex located," he
said. He looked full at Ashton. "But there's no one here that the
secret will not be as safe with as it is with me. Besides, it's all in
the family. I found the vein a thousand feet up the chute of Dry Fork
Gulch. We will name it the Genevieve Lode. There are six of us here,
counting Tommy. Each of us gets a sixth interest."

Ashton was now pale. "Mr. Blake--Tom, I cannot! If I were fit to stay
and work for you--as an axman--anything!--"

Blake's eyes twinkled. "Then your sixth will have to go to Belle."

"Mine too, Tom," hastily put in Knowles.

Blake looked down solemnly at his youthful heir. "Hear that, Tommy?
Guess we'll have to pull out, too, and make it half and half to the
ladies." He looked up at Ashton with a swift change from mock to real
gravity. "We've got to begin by installing a turbine power-plant down
here. Where will I find another engineer with nerve enough to go down
these cliffs? I need you, Lafe."

"I am very sorry, Tom." Ashton drew his hand from Blake's wearied
clasp, and rose.

Isobel slipped past him and stood with her arms outstretched across
the entrance of the tent. There was a dimple in each of her blushing
cheeks; her eyes were radiant with tenderness and love.

"No, you can't get away!" she declared. "Don't you see how we've got
you corralled?"

"That's what," confirmed Knowles. "I promised her to rope and hogtie
you if you made a break."

Ashton was gazing into the girl's eyes, his own shining with reverent
adoration.

"Isobel?" he whispered.

"Let us go up on the ridge and look out over our mesa," she murmured.

"Wait a moment, dear," interposed Genevieve. "Lafayette, I wish to
tell you that as soon as Tom and I return to Chicago, we shall go to
your father. I feel certain that when he hears--"

"No, no!" begged Ashton. "You must wait. Promise that you will wait. I
have only begun to make a beginning. Wait until I see if I can--" He
straightened and looked at Isobel, his head well up, his eyes as
resolute as his mouth. "Wait until I have proved what I am."

"Come," said Isobel. "We're going to look at our dry mesa that we are
to reclaim and make into a garden with the waste waters of the
depths."





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