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William MacLeod Raine
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How long she remained there Phyllis did not know. Fear drummed at her heart. She was sick with apprehension. At last her very terror drove her out to learn the worst. She walked round to the front of the house and saw a light in the store. Swiftly she ran across and up the steps to the porch. Three men were inside examining the empty chair by the light of a lantern one held in his hand.
"Did--did he get away?" the girl faltered.
The men turned. One of them was Slim. He held in his hand pieces of the slashed rope and the open pocket-knife that had freed the prisoner.
"Looks like it," Slim answered. "With some help from a friend. Now, I wonder who that useful friend was and how in time he got in here?"
Her eyes betrayed her. Just for an instant they swept to the cellar door, to make sure it was still shut. But that one glance was enough. Slim, about to speak, changed his mind, and stared at her with parted lips. She saw suspicion grow in his face and resolve itself to certainty, helped to decision by the telltale color dyeing her cheeks.
"Does the cellar stairway from the store connect with the kitchen cellar, Phyllie?" he asked.
He nodded, then laughed without mirth. "I reckon I can tell you, boys, who Mr. Keller's friend in need is."
"Who? I'd like right well to know." Brill Healy, in a pallid fury, had just come in and was listening.
Phyllis turned and faced him. "I was that friend, Brill."
"You!" He stared at her in astonishment. "You! Why, it was you sent me out to run him down."
"I didn't tell you that I wanted you to murder him, did I?"
"I guess there's a lot between him and you that you didn't tell me," he jeered.
Slim grinned, not at all maliciously. "I reckon that's right. I don't need to ask you now, Phyllie, who it was I found with you in the kitchen."
"He was just going," she protested.
"Sure, and I busted into the good-bys right inconsiderate."
"Go ahead, Slim. I'm only a girl. You and Brill say what you like," she flashed at him, the nails of her fingers biting into the palms of her hands.
"Only don't say it out loud," cautioned a new voice. Jim Yeager was at the door, and he was looking very pointedly at Healy.
"I say what I think, Jim," Brill retorted promptly.
"And you think?"
Healy slammed his fist down hard on the counter. "I think things ain't right when a Malpais girl helps a hawss thief and a rustler to escape twice."
"Take care, Brill," advised Phyllis.
"Not right how?" asked Yeager quietly, but in an ominous tone.
"Don't you two go to twisting my meaning. All Malpais knows that no better girl than Phyl Sanderson ever breathed."
The young woman's lip curled. "I'm grateful for this indorsement, sir," she murmured with mock humility.
"Do I understand that Keller has made his getaway?" Jim Yeager asked.
"He sure has--clean as a whistle."
"Then you idiots want to be plumb grateful to Phyllie. He ain't any more a rustler than I am. If you had hanged him you would have hanged an innocent man."
"Prove it," cried Healy.
Jim looked at him quietly. "I cayn't prove it just now. You'll have to take my word for it."
"Yore word goes with me, Jim, even if I am an idiot by yore say-so," his father announced promptly.
Jim smiled and let an arm fall across the shoulders of James Yeager, Senior. "I ain't countin' you in on that class, dad. You got to trailing with bad company. I'll have to bring you up stricter."
"I hate to be a knocker, Jim, but I've got to trust my own eyes before your indorsement," Healy sneered.
"That's your privilege, Brill."
"I reckon Jim knows what he's talking about," said Yeager, Senior, with intent to conciliate.
"Of course I know you're right friendly with him, Jim. There's nobody more competent to pass an opinion on him. Like enough you know all about his affairs," conceded Healy with polite malice.
The two young men were looking at each other steadily. They never had been friends, and lately they had been a good deal less than that. Rival leaders of the range for years, another cause had lately fanned their rivalry to a flame. Now a challenge had been flung down and accepted.
"I expect I know more about them than you do, Brill."
"Sure you do. Ain't he just got through being your guest? Didn't he come visiting you in a hurry? Didn't you tie up his wound? And when Phil and I came asking questions didn't you antedate his arrival about six hours? I'm not denying you know all about him. What I'm wondering is why you didn't tell all you knew. Of course, I understand they are your reasons, though, not mine."
"You've said it. They're my reasons."
"I ain't saying they are not good reasons. Whyfor should a man round on his friend?"
The innuendo was plain, and Yeager put it into words. "I'd be right proud to have him for a friend. But we all know what you mean, Brill. Go right ahead. Try and persuade the boys I'm a rustler, too. They haven't known me on an average much over twenty years. But that doesn't matter. They're so durned teachable to-day maybe you can get them to swallow that with the rest."
With which parting shot he followed Phyllis out of the store. She turned on him at the top of the porch steps leading to the house.
"Did he tell you that Phil was the rustler?"
"You mean did Keller tell me?" he said, surprised.
"Yes. 'Rastus was in the live oak and heard all you said."
"No. He didn't tell me that. We neither of us think it was Phil. It couldn't be, for he was riding with you at the time. But he found your knife there by the dead cow. Now, how did it come there? You let Phil have the knife. Had he lent his knife to some one?"
"I don't know." She went on, after a momentary hesitation: "Are you quite sure, Jim, that he really found the knife there?"
"He said so. I believe him."
She sighed softly, as if she would have liked to feel as sure. "The reason I spoke of it was that I accused him of trying to throw the blame on Phil, and he told me to ask you about it."
Jim shook his head. "Nothing to it. If you want my opinion, Keller is white clear enough. He wouldn't try a trick like that."
The girl's face lit, and she held out an impulsive hand. "Anyhow, you're a good friend, Jim."
"I've been that ever since you was knee high to a duck, Phyl."
"Yes--yes, you have. The best I've got, next to Phil and Dad." Her heart just now was very warm to him.
"Don't you reckon maybe a good friend might make a good--something else."
She gasped. "Oh, Jim! You don't mean----"
"Yep. That's what I do mean. Course I'm not good enough. I know that."
"Good. You're the best ever. It isn't that. Only I don't like you that way."
"Maybe you might some day."
She shook her head slowly. "I wish I could, Jim. But I never will."
"Is there--someone else, Phyl?"
If it had been light enough he could have seen a wave of color sweep her face.
"No. Of course there isn't. How could there be? I'm only a girl."
"It ain't Brill then?"
"No. It's--it isn't anybody." She carried the war, womanlike, into his camp. "And I don't believe you care for me--that way. It's just a fancy."
"One I've had two years, little girl."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I do like you, better than any one else. You know that, dear old Jim."
He smiled wistfully. "If you didn't like me so well I reckon I'd have a better chance. Well, I mustn't keep you here. Good night."
Her ringers were lost in his big fist. "Good night, Jim." And again she added, "I'm so sorry."
"Don't you be. It's all right with me, Phyl. I just thought I'd mention it. You never can tell, though I most knew how it would be. Buenos noches, nina."
He released her hand, and without once looking back strode to his horse, swung to the saddle, and rode into the night.
She carried into the house with her a memory of his cheerful smile. It had been meant as a reassurance to her. It told her he would get over it, and she knew he would. For he was no puling schoolboy, but a man, game to the core.
The face of another man rose before her, saturnine and engaging and debonair. With the picture came wave on wave of shame. He was a detected villain, and she had let him kiss her. But beneath the self-scorn was something new, something that stung her blood, that left her flushed and tingling with her first experience of sex relations.
A week ago she had not yet emerged fully from the chrysalis of childhood. But in the Southland flowers ripen fast. Adolescence steals hard upon the heels of infancy. Nature was pushing her relentlessly toward a womanhood for which her splendid vitality and unschooled impulses but scantily safeguarded her. The lank, shy innocence of the fawn still wrapped her, but in the heart of this frank daughter of the desert had been born a poignant shyness, a vague, delightful trembling that marked a change. A quality which had lain banked in her nature like a fire since childhood now threw forth its first flame of heat. At sunset she had been still treading the primrose path of youth; at sunrise she had entered upon the world-old heritage of her sex.