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William MacLeod Raine
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Keller found convalescence under the superintendence of Miss Sanderson one of the great pleasures of his life. Her school was out for the summer and she was now at home all day. He had never before found time to be lazy, and what dreaming he had done had been in the stress of action. Now he might lie the livelong day and not too obviously watch her brave, frank youth as she moved before him or sat reading. For the first time in his life he was in love!
But as the nester grew better he perceived that she was withdrawing herself from him. He puzzled over the reason, not knowing that her brother, Phil, was troubling her with flings and accusations thrown out bitterly because his boyish concern for her good name could find no gentler way to express itself.
"They're saying you're in love with the fellow--and him headed straight for the pen," he charged.
"Who says it, Phil?" she asked quietly, but with flaming cheeks.
He smote his fist on the table. "It don't matter who says it. You keep away from him. Let Aunt Becky nurse him. You haven't any call to wait on him, anyhow. If he's got to be nursed by one of the family, I'll do it."
He tried to keep his word, and as a result of it the wounded man had to endure his sulky presence occasionally. Keller was man of the world enough to be amused at his attitude, and yet was interested enough in the lad's opinion of him to keep always an even mood of cheerful friendliness. There was a quantity of winsome camaraderie about him that won its way with Phil in spite of himself. Moreover, all the boy in him responded to the nester's gameness, the praises of which he heard on all sides.
"I see you have quite made up your mind I'm a skunk," the wounded man told him amiably.
"You robbed the bank at Noches and shot up three men that hadn't hurt you any," the boy retorted defiantly.
"Not unless Jim Yeager is a liar."
"Oh, Jim! No use going into that. He's your friend. I don't know why, but he is."
"And you're Brill Healy's. That's why you won't tell that he was carrying your sister's knife the day I saw you and him first."
The boy flashed toward the bed startled eyes. Keller was looking at him very steadily.
"Who says he had Phyl's knife?"
"What difference does that make, anyhow? I hear you're telling that you found the knife beside the dead cow. You ain't got any proof, have you?" challenged young Sanderson angrily.
"No proof," admitted the other.
"Well, then." Phil chewed on it for a moment before he broke out again: "I reckon you cayn't talk away the facts, Mr. Keller. We caught you in the act--caught you good. By your own story, you're the man we came on. What's the use of you trying to lay it on me and Brill?"
"Am I trying to lay it on you?"
"Looks like. On Brill, anyhow. There's nothing doing. Folks in this neck of the woods is for him and against you. Might as well sabe that right now," the lad blurted.
"I sabe that some of them are," the other laughed, but not with quite his usual debonair gayety. For he did not at all like the way things looked.
But though Phil had undertaken to do all the nursing that needed to be done by the family, he was too much of an outdoors dweller to confine himself for long to the four walls of a room. Besides, he was often called away by the work of looking after the cattle of the ranch. Moreover, both he and his father were away a good deal arranging for the disposal of their sheep. At these times her patient hoped, and hoped in vain, that Phyllis would take her brother's place.
Came a day when Keller could stand it no longer. In Becky's absence, he made shift to dress himself, bit by bit, lying on the bed in complete exhaustion after the effort of getting into each garment. He could scarce finish what he had undertaken, but at last he was clothed and ready for the journey. Leaning on a walking stick, he dragged himself into the passage and out to the porch, where Phyllis was sitting alone.
She gave a startled cry at sight of him standing there, haggard and white, his clothes hanging on his gaunt frame much as if he had been a skeleton.
"What are you doing?" she cried, running to his aid.
After she had got him into her chair, he smiled up at her and panted weakly. He was leaning back in almost complete exhaustion.
"You wouldn't come to see me, so--I came--to see you," he gasped out, at last.
"But--you shouldn't have! You might have done yourself a great injury. It's--it's criminal of you."
"I wanted to see you," he explained simply.
"Why didn't you send for me?"
"There wasn't anybody to send. Besides, you wouldn't have stayed. You never do, now."
She looked at him, then looked away. "You don't need me now--and I have my work to do."
"But I do need you, Phyllie."
It was the first time he had ever spoken the diminutive to her. He let out the word lingeringly, as if it were a caress. The girl felt the color flow beneath her dusky tan. She changed the subject abruptly.
"None of the boys are here. How am I to get you back to your room?"
"I'll roll a trail back there presently, ma'am."
She looked helplessly round the landscape, in hope of seeing some rider coming to the store. But nobody was in sight.
"You had no business to come. It might have killed you. I thought you had better sense," she reproached.
"I wanted to see you," he parroted again.
Like most young women, she knew how to ignore a good deal. "You'll have to lean on me. Do you think you can try it now?"
"If I go, will you stay with me and talk?" he bargained.
"I have my work to do," she frowned.
"Then I'll stay here, thank you kindly." He settled back into the chair and let her have his gay smile. Nevertheless, she saw that his lips were colorless.
"Yes, I'll stay," she conceded, moved by her anxiety.
"All right," he laughed weakly. "If you don't come, I'll take a pasear and go look for you." She helped him to his feet and they stood for a moment facing each other.
"You must put your hand on my shoulder and lean hard on me," she told him.
But when she saw the utter weakness of him, her arm slipped round his waist and steadied him.
"Now then. Not too fast," she ordered gently.
They went back very slowly, his weight leaning on her more at every step. When they reached his room, Keller sank down on the bed, utterly exhausted. Phyllis ran for a cordial and put it to his lips. It was some time before he could even speak.
"Thank you. I ain't right husky yet," he admitted.
"You mustn't ever do such a thing again," she charged him.
"Not till the doctor says you're strong enough to move."
"I won't--if you'll come and see me every day," he answered irrepressibly.
So every afternoon she brought a book or her sewing, and sat by him, letting Phil storm about it as much as he liked. These were happy hours. Neither spoke of love, but the air was electrically full of it. They laughed together a good deal at remarks not intrinsically humorous, and again there were conversational gaps so highly charged that she would rush at them as a reckless hunter takes a fence.
As he got better, he would be propped up in bed, and Aunt Becky would bring in tea for them both. If there had been any corner of his heart unwon it would have surrendered then. For to a bachelor the acme of bliss is to sit opposite a girl of whom he is very fond, and to see her buttering his bread and pouring his tea with that air of domesticity that visualizes the intimacy of which he has dreamed. Keller had played a lone hand all his turbulent life, and this was like a glimpse of Heaven let down to earth for his especial benefit.
It was on such an occasion that Jim Yeager dropped in on them upon his return from Noches. He let his eyes travel humorously over the room before he spoke.
"Why for don't I ever have the luck to be shot up?" he drawled.
"Oh, you Jim!" Keller called a greeting from the bed. Phyllis came forward, and, with a heightened color, shook hands with him.
"You'll sit down with us and have some tea, Jim," she told him.
"Me? I'm no society Willie. Don't know the game at all, Phyl. Besides, I'm carrying half of Arizona on my clothes. It's some dusty down in the Malpais."
Nevertheless he sat down, and, over the biscuits and jam, told the meagre story of what he had found out.
The finding of the stocking-footed roan near Noches so soon after the robbery disposed of Healy's lie, though it did not prove that Keller had not been riding it at the time of the holdup. As for Healy, Yeager confessed he saw no way of implicating him. His alibi was just as good as that of any of them.
But there was one person his story did involve, and that was Spiker, the tinhorn, tenderfoot sport of Noches. During the absence of this young man at the gaming table, Jim and his friend, Sam Weaver, had got into his room with a skeleton key and searched it thoroughly. They had found, in a suit case, a black mask, a pair of torn and shiny chaps, a gray shirt, a white, dusty sombrero, much the worse for wear, and over three hundred dollars in bills.
"What does he pretend his business is?" Keller asked, when Jim had finished.
"Allows he's a showfer. Drives folks around in a gasoline wagon. That's the theory, but I notice he turned down a mining man who wanted to get him to run him into the hills on Monday. Said he hadn't time. The showfer biz is a bluff, looks like."
The nester made no answer. His eyes, narrowed to slits, were gazing out of the window absently. Presently he came from deep thought to ask Yeager to hand him the map he would find in his inside coat pocket. This he spread out on the bed in front of him. When at last he looked up he was smiling.
"I reckon it's no bluff, Jim. He's a chauffeur, all right, but he only drives out select outfits."
The map lying in front of Keller was one of Noches County. The nester located, with his index finger, the town of that name, and traced the road from it to Seven Mile. Then his finger went back to Noches, and followed the old military road to Fort Lincoln, a route which almost paralleled the one to the ranch.
The eyes of Phyllis were already shining with excitement. She divined what was coming.
"Is this road still travelled, Jim?"
"It goes out to the old fort. Nobody has lived there for most thirty years. I reckon the road ain't travelled much."
"Strikes through Del Oro Cañon, doesn't it, right after it leaves Noches?"
"I reckon, Jim, your friend, Spiker, drove a party out that way the afternoon of the holdup," the nester drawled smilingly. "By the way, is your friend in the lockup?"
"He sure is. The deputy sheriff arrested him same night we went through his room."
"Good place for him. Well, it looks like we got Mr. Healy tagged at last. I don't mean that we've got the proof, but we can prove he might have been on the job."
"I don't see it, Larry. I reckon my head's right thick."
"I see it," spoke up Phyllis quickly.
Keller smiled at her. "You tell him."
"Don't you see, Jim? The motor car must have been waiting for them somewhere after they had robbed the bank," she explained.
"At the end of Del Oro Cañon, likely," suggested the nester.
She nodded eagerly. "Yes, they would get into the cañon before the pursuit was in sight. That is why they were not seen by Slim and the rest of the posse."
Yeager looked at her, and as he looked the certainty of it grew on him. His mind began to piece out the movements of the outlaws from the time they left Noches. "That's right, Phyl. His car is what he calls a hummer. It can go like blazes--forty miles an hour, he told me. And the old fort road is a dandy, too."
"They would leave the automobile at Willow Creek, and cut across to the Pass," she hazarded.
"All but Brill. Being bridlewise, he rode right for Seven Mile to make dead sure of his alibi, whilst the others made their getaway with the loot. When he happened to meet you on the way, he would be plumb tickled, for that cinched things proper for him. You would be a witness nobody could get away from."
"And what about their hawsses? Did they bring the bronchs in the car, too?" drawled Keller, an amused flicker in his eyes.
The others, who had been swimming into their deductions so confidently, were brought up abruptly. Phyllis glanced at Jim and looked foolish.
"The bronchs couldn't tag along behind at a forty per clip. That's right," admitted Yeager blankly.
"I hadn't thought about that. And they had to have their horses with them to get from Willow Creek to the Pass. That spoils everything," the girl agreed.
Then, seeing her lover's white teeth flashing laughter at her, she knew he had found a way round the difficulty. "How would this do, partners--just for a guess: The car was waiting for them at the end of the Del Oro Cañon. They dumped their loot into it, then unsaddled and threw all the saddles in, too. They gave the bronchs a good scare, and started them into the hills, knowing they would find their way back home all right in a couple of days. At Willow Creek they found hawsses waiting for them, and Mr. Spiker hit the back trail for Noches, with his car, and slid into town while everybody was busy about the robbery."
"Sure. That would be the way of it," his friend nodded. "All we got to do now is to get Spiker to squeal."
"If he happens to be a quitter."
"He will--under pressure. He's that kind."
A knock came on the door, and Tom Benwell, the store clerk, answered her summons to come in.
"It's Budd, Miss Phyl. He came to see about getting-that stuff you was going to order for a dress for his little girl," the storekeeper explained.
Phyllis rose and followed the man back to the store. When she had gone, Jim stepped to the door and shut it. Returning, he sat down beside the bed.
"Larry, I didn't tell all I know. That hat in Spiker's room had the initials P.S. written on the band. What's more, I knew the hat by a big coffee stain splashed on the crown. It happens I made that stain myself on the round-up onct when we were wrastling and I knocked the coffeepot over."
Keller looked at his friend gravely. "It was Phil Sanderson's hat?"
Yeager nodded assent. "He must have loaned his old hat to Spiker for the holdup."
"You didn't turn the hat over to the sheriff?"
"Not so as you could notice it. I shoved it in my jeans and burnt it over my camp fire next day."
"This mixes things up a heap. If Phil is in this thing--and it sure looks that way--it ties our hands. I'd like to have a talk with Spiker before we do anything."
"What's the matter with having a talk with Phil? Why not shove this thing right home to him?"
The nester shook his head. "Let's wait a while. We don't want to drive Healy away yet. If the kid's in it he would go right to Healy with the whole story."
Yeager swore softly. "It's all Brill's fault. He's been leading Phil into devilment for two years now."
"And all the time been playing himself for the leader of us fellows that are against the rustlers and that Bear Creek outfit," continued Jim bitterly. "Why, we been talking of electing him sheriff. Durn his forsaken hide, he's been riding round asking the boys to vote for him on a promise to clean out the miscreants."
"You can oppose him, of course. But we have no absolute proof against him yet. We must have proof that nobody can doubt."
"I reckon. And'll likely have to wait till we're gray."
"I don't think so. My guess is that he's right near the end of his rope. We're going to make a clean-up soon as I get solid on my feet."
"And Phil? What if we catch him in the gather, and find him wearing the bad-man brand?"
Keller's eyes met those of his friend. "There never was a rodeo where some cattle didn't slip through unnoticed, Jim."