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A Bargain







Part of: DEAD MAN'S CACHE
From: Brand Blotters

Melissy saw the two prisoners brought in, though she could not tell at
that distance who they were. Her watch told her that it was four-thirty.
She had slept scarcely at all during the night, but now she lay down on
the bed in her clothes.

The next she knew, Rosario was calling her to get up for breakfast. The
girl dressed and followed Rosario to the adjoining cabin. MacQueen was not
there, and Melissy ate alone. She was given to understand that she might
walk up and down in front of the houses for a few minutes after breakfast.
Naturally she made the most of the little liberty allowed her.

The old squaw Sit-in-the-Sun squatted in front of the last hut, her back
against the log wall. The man called Buck sat yawning on a rock a few
yards away. What struck Melissy as strange was that the squaw was figuring
on the back of an old envelope with the stub of a lead pencil.

The young woman walked leisurely past the cabin for perhaps a dozen
yards.

"That'll be about far enough. You don't want to tire yourself, Miss Lee,"
Buck Lane called, with a grin.

Melissy stopped, stood looking at the mountains for a few minutes, and
turned back. Sit-in-the-Sun looked quickly at her, and at the same moment
she tore the paper in two and her fingers opened to release one piece of
the envelope upon which she had been writing. A puff of wind carried it
almost directly in front of the girl. Lane was still yawning sleepily, his
gaze directed toward the spot where he presently expected Rosario to step
out and call him to breakfast. Melissy dropped her handkerchief, stooped
to pick it up, and gathered at the same time in a crumpled heap into her
hand the fragment of an envelope. Without another glance at the squaw, the
young woman kept on her way, sauntered to the porch, and lingered there as
if in doubt.

"I'm tired," she announced to Rosario, and turned to her rooms.

"Si, senorita," answered her attendant quietly.

Once inside, Melissy lay down on her bed, with her back to the window, and
smoothed out the torn envelope. On one side were some disjointed memoranda
which she did not understand.

K. C. & T. 93
D. & R. B. 87
Float $10,000,000 Cortes for extension.

That was all, but certainly a strange puzzle for a Navajo squaw to set
her.

She turned the paper over, to find the other side close-packed with
writing.

Miss Lee:

In the last cabin but one is a prisoner, your friend Sheriff Flatray.
He is to be shot in an hour. I have offered any sum for his life and
been refused. For God's sake save him somehow.

Simon West.
Jack Flatray here, and about to be murdered! The thing was incredible. And
yet--and yet---- Was it so impossible, after all? Some one had broken into
the Cache and released the prisoners. Who more likely than Jack to have
done this? And later they had captured him and condemned him for what he
had done.

Melissy reconstructed the scene in a flash. The Indian squaw was West. He
had been rigged up in that paraphernalia to deceive any chance mountaineer
who might drop into the valley by accident.

No doubt, when he first saw Melissy, the railroad magnate had been passing
his time in making notes about his plans for the system he controlled. But
when he had caught sight of her, he had written the note, under the very
eyes of the guard, had torn the envelope as if it were of no importance,
and tossed the pieces away. He had taken the thousandth chance that his
note might fall into the hands of the person to whom it was directed.

All this she understood without giving it conscious thought. For her whole
mind was filled with the horror of what she had learned. Jack Flatray, the
man she loved, was to be killed. He was to be shot down in an hour.

With the thought, she was at her door--only to find that it had been
quietly locked while she lay on the bed. No doubt they had meant to keep
her a close prisoner until the thing they were about to do was finished.
She beat upon it, called to Rosario to let her out, wrung her hands in her
desperation. Then she remembered the window. It was a cheap and flimsy
case, and had been jammed so that her strength was not sufficient to raise
it.

Her eye searched the room for a weapon, and found an Indian tom-tom club.
With this she smashed the panes and beat down the wooden cross bars of the
sash. Agile as a forest fawn, she slipped through the opening she had made
and ran toward the far cabin.

A group of men surrounded the door; and, as she drew near, it opened to
show three central figures. MacQueen was one, Rosario Chaves a second; but
the most conspicuous was a bareheaded young man, with his hands tied
behind him. He was going to his death, but a glance was enough to show
that he went unconquered and unconquerable. His step did not drag. There
was a faint, grave smile on his lips; and in his eye was the dynamic spark
that proclaimed him still master of his fate. The woolen shirt had been
unbuttoned and pulled back to make way for the rope that lay loosely about
his neck, so that she could not miss the well-muscled slope of his fine
shoulders, or the gallant set of the small head upon the brown throat.

The man who first caught sight of Melissy spoke in a low voice to his
chief. MacQueen turned his head sharply to see her, took a dozen steps
toward her, then upbraided the Mexican woman, who had run out after
Melissy.

"I told you to lock her door--to make sure of it."

"Si, senor--I did."

"Then how----" He stopped, and looked to Miss Lee for an explanation.

"I broke the window."

The outlaw noticed then that her hand was bleeding. "Broke the window!
Why?"

"I had to get out! I had to stop you!"

He attempted no denial of what he was about to do. "How did you know? Did
Rosario tell you?" he asked curtly.

"No--no! I found out--just by chance."

"What chance?" He was plainly disconcerted that she had come to interfere,
and as plainly eager to punish the person who had disclosed to her this
thing, which he would have liked to do quietly, without her knowledge.

"Never mind that. Nobody is to blame. Say I overheard a sentence. Thank
God I did, and I am in time."

There was no avoiding it now. He had to fight it out with her. "In time
for what?" he wanted to know, his eyes narrowing to vicious pin points.

"To save him."

"No--no! He must die," cried the Mexican woman.

Melissy was amazed at her vehemence, at the passion of hate that trembled
in the voice of the old woman.

MacQueen nodded. "It is out of my hands, you see. He has been condemned."

"But why?"

"Tell her, Rosario."

The woman poured her story forth fluently in the native tongue. O'Connor
had killed her son--did not deny that he had done it. And just because
Tony had tried to escape. This man had freed the ranger. Very well. He
should take O'Connor's place. Let him die the death. A life for a life.
Was that not fair?

Flatray turned his head and caught sight of Melissy. A startled cry died
on his lips.

"Jack!" She held out both hands to him as she ran toward him.

The sheriff took her in his arms to console her. For the girl's face was
working in a stress of emotion.

"Oh, I'm in time--I'm in time. Thank God I'm in time."

Jack waited a moment to steady his voice. "How came you here, Melissy?"

"He brought me--Black MacQueen. I hated him for it, but now I'm glad--so
glad--because I can save you."

Jack winced. He looked over her shoulder at MacQueen, taking it all in
with an air of pleasant politeness. And one look was enough to tell him
that there was no hope for him. The outlaw had the complacent manner of a
cat which has just got at the cream. That Melissy loved him would be an
additional reason for wiping him off the map. And in that instant a fierce
joy leaped up in Flatray and surged through him, an emotion stronger than
the fear of death. She loved him. MacQueen could not take that away from
him.

"It's all a mistake," Melissy went on eagerly. "Of course they can't blame
you for what Lieutenant O'Connor did. It is absurd--ridiculous."

"Certainly." MacQueen tugged at his little black mustache and kept his
black eyes on her constantly. "That's not what we're blaming him for. The
indictment against your friend is that he interfered when it wasn't his
business."

"But it was his business. Don't you know he's sheriff? He had to do it."
Melissy turned to the outlaw impetuously.

"So. And I have to play my hand out, too. It wipes out Mr. Flatray. Sorry,
but business is business."

"But--but----" Melissy grew pale as the icy fear gripped her heart that
the man meant to go on with the crime. "Don't you see? He's the sheriff?"

"And I never did love sheriffs," drawled MacQueen.

The girl repeated herself helplessly. "It was his sworn duty. That was how
he looked at it."

A ghost of an ironic smile flitted across the face of the outlaw chief.
"Rosario's sworn duty is to avenge her son's death. That is how she looks
at it. The rest of us swore the oath with her."

"But Lieutenant O'Connor had the law back of him. This is murder!"

"Not at all. It is the law of the valley--a life for a life."

"But---- Oh, no--no--no!"

"Yes."

The finality of it appalled her. She felt as if she were butting her head
against a stone wall. She knew that argument and entreaty were of no
avail, yet she desperately besought first one and then another of them to
save the prisoner. Each in turn shook his head. She could see that none of
them, save Rosario, bore him a grudge; yet none would move to break the
valley oath. At the last, she was through with her promises and her
prayers. She had spent them all, and had come up against the wall of blank
despair.

Then Jack's grave smile thanked her. "You've done what you could,
Melissy."

She clung to him wildly. "Oh, no--no! I can't let you go, Jack. I can't. I
can't."

"I reckon it's got to be, dear," he told her gently.

But her breaking heart could not stand that. There must somehow be a way
to save him. She cast about desperately for one, and had not found it when
she begged the outlaw chief to see her alone.

"No use." He shook his head.

"But just for five minutes! That can't do any harm, can it?"

"And no good, either."

"Yet I ask it. You might do that much for me," she pleaded.

Her despair had moved him; for he was human, after all. That he was
troubled about it annoyed him a good deal. Her arrival on the scene had
made things unpleasant for everybody. Ungraciously he assented, as the
easiest way out of the difficulty.

The two moved off to the corral. It was perhaps thirty yards distant, and
they reached it before either of them spoke. She was the first to break
the silence.


Page 294.]

"You won't do this dreadful thing--surely, you won't do it."

"No use saying another word about it. I told you that," he answered
doggedly.

"But---- Oh, don't you see? It's one of those things no white man can do.
Once it's done, you have put the bars up against decency for the rest of
your life."

"I reckon I'll have to risk that--and down in your heart you don't believe
it, because you think I've had the bars up for years."

She had come to an impasse already. She tried another turn. "And you said
you cared for me! Yet you are willing to make me unhappy for the rest of
my life."

"Why, no! I'm willing to make you happy. There's fish in the sea just as
good as any that ever were caught," he smirked.

"But it would help you to free him. Don't you see? It's your chance. You
can begin again, now. You can make him your friend."

His eyes were hard and grim. "I don't want him for a friend, and you're
dead wrong if you think I could make this a lever to square myself with
the law. I couldn't. He wouldn't let me, for one thing--he isn't that
kind."

"And you said you cared for me!" she repeated helplessly, wringing her
hands in her despair. "But at the first chance you fail me."

"Can't you see it isn't a personal matter? I've got nothing against
him--nothing to speak of. I'd give him to you, if I could. But it's not my
say-so. The thing is out of my hands."

"You could save him, if you set yourself to."

"Sure, I could--if I would pay the price. But I won't pay."

"That's it. You would have to give Rosario something--make some
concession," she said eagerly.

"And I'm not willing to pay the price," he told her. "His life's forfeit.
Hasn't he been hunting us for a week?"

"Let me pay it," she cried. "I have money in my own right--seven thousand
dollars. I'll give it all to save him."

He shook his head. "No use. We've turned down a big offer from West. Your
seven thousand isn't a drop in the bucket."

She beat her hands together wildly. "There must be some way to save him."

The outlaw was looking at her with narrowed eyes. He saw a way, and was
working it out in his mind. "You're willing to pay, are you?" he asked.

"Yes--yes! All I have."

He put his arms akimbo on the corral fence, and looked long at her.
"Suppose the price can't be paid in money, Miss Lee."

"What do you mean?"

"Money isn't the only thing in this world. There are lots of things it
won't buy that other things will," he said slowly.

She groped for his meaning, her wide eyes fixed on his, and still did not
find it. "Be plainer, please. What can I do to save him?"

"You might marry me."

"Never!"

"Just as you say. You were looking for a way, and I suggested one. Anyhow,
you're mine."

"I won't do it!"

"You wanted me to pay the price; but you don't want to pay yourself."

"I couldn't do it. It would be horrible!" But she knew she could and
must.

"Why couldn't you? I'm ready to cut loose from this way of living. When I
pull off this one big thing, I'll quit. We'll go somewhere and begin life
again. You said I could. Well, I will. You'll help me to keep straight. It
won't be only his life you are saving. It will be mine, too."

"No--I don't love you! How could a girl marry a man she didn't care for
and didn't respect?"

"I'll make you do both before long. I'm the kind of man women love."

"You're the kind I hate," she flashed bitterly.

"I'll risk your hate, my dear," he laughed easily.

She did not look at him. Her eyes were on the horizon line, where sky and
pine tops met. He knew that she was fighting it out to a decision, and he
did not speak again.

After all, she was only a girl. Right and wrong were inextricably mixed in
her mind. It was not right to marry this man. It was not right to let the
sheriff die while she could save him. She was generous to the core. But
there was something deeper than generosity. Her banked love for Flatray
flooded her in a great cry of protest against his death. She loved him.
She loved him. Much as she detested this man, revolting as she found the
thought of being linked to him, the impulse to sacrifice herself was the
stronger feeling of the two. Deep in her heart she knew that she could not
let Jack go to his death so long as it was possible to prevent it.

Her grave eyes came back to MacQueen. "I'll have to tell you one
thing--I'll hate you worse than ever after this. Don't think I'll ever
change my mind about that. I won't."

He twirled his little mustache complacently.

"I'll have to risk that, as I said."

"You'll take me to Mesa to-day. As soon as we get there a justice of the
peace will marry us. From his house we'll go directly to father's. You
won't lie to me."

"No. I'll play out the game square, if you do."

"And after we're married, what then?"

"You may stay at home until I get this ransom business settled. Then we'll
go to Sonora."

"How do you know I'll go?"

"I'll trust you."

"Then it's a bargain."

Without another word, they turned back to rejoin the group by the cabin.
Before they had gone a dozen steps she stopped.

"What about Mr. Flatray? You will free him, of course."

"Yes. I'll take him right out due north of here, about four miles. He'll
be blindfolded. There we'll leave him, with instructions how to reach
Mesa."

"I'll go with you," she announced promptly.

"What for?"

"To make sure that you do let him go--alive."

He shrugged his shoulders. "All right. I told you I was going to play
fair. I haven't many good points, but that is one of them. I don't give my
word and then break it."

"Still, I'll go."

He laughed angrily. "That's your privilege."

She turned on him passionately. "You've got no right to resent it, though
I don't care a jackstraw whether you do or not. I'm not going into this
because I want to, but to save this man from the den of wolves into which
he has fallen. If you knew how I despise and hate you, how my whole soul
loathes you, maybe you wouldn't be so eager to go on with it! You'll get
nothing out of this but the pleasure of torturing a girl who can't defend
herself."

"We'll see about that," he answered doggedly.





Next: The Price

Previous: An Escape And A Capture



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