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A Desert Meeting








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

An automobile shot out from a gash in the hills and slipped swiftly down
to the butte. Here it came to a halt on the white, dusty road, while
its occupant gazed with eager, unsated eyes on the great panorama that
stretched before her. The earth rolled in waves like a mighty sea to
the distant horizon line. From a wonderful blue sky poured down upon
the land a bath of sunbeat. The air was like wine, pure and strong, and
above the desert swam the rare, untempered light of Wyoming. Surely here
was a peace primeval, a silence unbroken since the birth of creation.

It was all new to her, and wonderfully exhilarating. The infinite roll
of plain, the distant shining mountains, the multitudinous voices of the
desert drowned in a sunlit sea of space--they were all details of the
situation that ministered to a large serenity.

And while she breathed deeply the satisfaction of it, an exploding rifle
echo shattered the stillness. With excited sputtering came the prompt
answer of a fusillade. She was new to the West; but some instinct
stronger than reason told the girl that here was no playful puncher
shooting up the scenery to ventilate his exuberance. Her imagination
conceived something more deadly; a sinister picture of men pumping lead
in a grim, close-lipped silence; a lusty plainsman, with murder in
his heart, crumpling into a lifeless heap, while the thin smoke-spiral
curled from his hot rifle.

So the girl imagined the scene as she ran swiftly forward through the
pines to the edge of the butte bluff whence she might look down upon the
coulee that nestled against it. Nor had she greatly erred, for her first
sweeping glance showed her the thing she had dreaded.

In a semicircle, well back from the foot of the butte, half a dozen
men crouched in the cover of the sage-brush and a scattered group of
cottonwoods. They were perhaps fifty yards apart, and the attention
of all of them was focused on a spot directly beneath her. Even as she
looked, in that first swift moment of apprehension, a spurt of smoke
came from one of the rifles and was flung back from the forked pine
at the bottom of the mesa. She saw him then, kneeling behind his
insufficient shelter, a trapped man making his last stand.

From where she stood the girl distinguished him very clearly, and under
the field-glasses that she turned on him the details leaped to life.
Tall, strong, slender, with the lean, clean build of a greyhound, he
seemed as wary and alert as a panther. The broad, soft hat, the scarlet
handkerchief loosely knotted about his throat, the gray shirt, spurs
and overalls, proclaimed him a stockman, just as his dead horse at the
entrance to the coulee told of an accidental meeting in the desert and a
hurried run for cover.

That he had no chance was quite plain, but no plainer than the cool
vigilance with which he proposed to make them pay. Even in the matter
of defense he was worse off than they were, but he knew how to make
the most of what he had; knew how to avail himself of every inch of
sagebrush that helped to render him indistinct to their eyes.

One of the attackers, eager for a clearer shot, exposed himself a trifle
too far in taking aim. Without any loss of time in sighting, swift as a
lightning-flash, the rifle behind the forked pine spoke. That the bullet
reached its mark she saw with a gasp of dismay. For the man suddenly
huddled down and rolled over on his side.

His comrades appeared to take warning by this example. The men at both
ends of the crescent fell back, and for a minute the girl's heart leaped
with the hope that they were about to abandon the siege. Apparently the
man in the scarlet kerchief had no such expectation. He deserted his
position behind the pine and ran back, crouching low in the brush, to
another little clump of trees closer to the bluff. The reason for this
was at first not apparent to her, but she understood presently when the
men who had fallen back behind the rolling hillocks appeared again well
in to the edge of the bluff. Only by his timely retreat had the man
saved himself from being outflanked.

It was very plain that the attackers meant to take their time to finish
him in perfect safety. He was surrounded on every side by a cordon of
rifles, except where the bare face of the butte hung down behind him.
To attempt to scale it would have been to expose himself as a mark for
every gun to certain death.

It was now that she heard the man who seemed to be directing the attack
call out to another on his right. She was too far to make out the words,
but their effect was clear to her. He pointed to the brow of the butte
above, and a puncher in white woolen chaps dropped back out of range
and swung to the saddle upon one of the ponies bunched in the rear. He
cantered round in a wide circle and made for the butte. His purpose was
obviously to catch their victim in the unprotected rear, and fire down
upon him from above.

The young woman shouted a warning, but her voice failed to carry. For a
moment she stood with her hands pressed together in despair, then
turned and swiftly scudded to her machine. She sprang in, swept forward,
reached the rim of the mesa, and plunged down. Never before had she
attempted so precarious a descent in such wild haste. The car fairly
leaped into space, and after it struck swayed dizzily as it shot down.
The girl hung on, her face white and set, the pulse in her temple
beating wildly. She could do nothing, as the machine rocked down, but
hope against many chances that instant destruction might be averted.

Utterly beyond her control, the motor-car thundered down, reached the
foot of the butte, and swept over a little hill in its wild flight. She
rushed by a mounted horseman in the thousandth part of a second. She was
still speeding at a tremendous velocity, but a second hill reduced this
somewhat. She had not yet recovered control of the machine, but, though
her eyes instinctively followed the white road that flashed past, she
again had photographed on her brain the scene of the turbid tragedy in
which she was intervening.

At the foot of the butte the road circled and dipped into the coulee.
She braced herself for the shock, but, though the wheels skidded till
her heart was in her throat, the automobile, hanging on the balance of
disaster, swept round in safety.

Her horn screamed an instant warning to the trapped man. She could not
see him, and for an instant her heart sank with the fear that they
had killed him. But she saw then that they were still firing, and she
continued her honking invitation as the car leaped forward into the zone
of spitting bullets.

By this time she was recovering control of the motor, and she dared
not let her attention wander, but out of the corner of her eye she
appreciated the situation. Temporarily, out of sheer amaze at this
apparition from the blue, the guns ceased their sniping. She became
aware that a light curly head, crouched low in the sage-brush, was
moving rapidly to meet her at right angles, and in doing so was
approaching directly the line of fire. She could see him dodging to and
fro as he moved forward, for the rifles were again barking.

She was within two hundred yards of him, still going rapidly, but not
with the same headlong rush as before, when the curly head disappeared
in the sage-brush. It was up again presently, but she could see that the
man came limping, and so uncertainly that twice he pitched forward to
the ground. Incautiously one of his assailants ran forward with a shout
the second time his head went down. Crack! The unerring rifle rang out,
and the impetuous one dropped in his tracks.

As she approached, the young woman slowed without stopping, and as the
car swept past Curly Head flung himself in headlong. He picked himself
up from her feet, crept past her to the seat beyond, and almost
instantly whipped his rifle to his shoulder in prompt defiance of the
fire that was now converged on them.

Yet in a few moments the sound died away, for a voice midway in the
crescent had shouted an amazed discovery:

"By God, it's a woman!"

The car skimmed forward over the uneven ground toward the end of the
semicircle, and passed within fifty yards of the second man from the
end, the one she had picked out as the leader of the party. He was a
black, swarthy fellow in plain leather chaps and blue shirt. As they
passed he took a long, steady aim.

"Duck!" shouted the man beside her, and dragged her down on the seat so
that his body covered hers.

A puff of wind fanned the girl's cheek.

"Near thing," her companion said coolly. He looked back at the swarthy
man and laughed softly. "Some day you'll mebbe wish you had sent your
pills straighter, Mr. Judd Morgan."

Yet a few wheel-turns and they had dipped forward out of range among
the great land waves that seemed to stretch before them forever. The
unexpected had happened, and she had achieved a rescue in the face of
the impossible.

"Hurt badly?" the girl inquired briefly, her dark-blue eyes meeting his
as frankly as those of a boy.

"No need for an undertaker. I reckon I'll survive, ma'am."

"Where are you hit?"

"I just got a telegram from my ankle saying there was a cargo of lead
arrived there unexpected," he drawled easily.

"Hurts a good deal, doesn't it?"

"No more than is needful to keep my memory jogged up. It's a sort of a
forget-me-not souvenir. For a good boy; compliments of Mr. Jim Henson,"
he explained.

Her dark glance swept him searchingly. She disapproved the assurance
of his manner even while the youth in her applauded his reckless
sufficiency. His gay courage held her unconsenting admiration even while
she resented it. He was a trifle too much at his ease for one who had
just been snatched from dire peril. Yet even in his insouciance there
was something engaging; something almost of distinction.

"What was the trouble?"

Mirth bubbled in his gray eyes. "I gathered, ma'am, that they wanted to
collect my scalp."

"Do what?" she frowned.

"Bump me off--send me across the divide."

"Oh, I know that. But why?"

He seemed to reproach himself. "Now how could I be so neglectful? I
clean forgot to ask."

"That's ridiculous," was her sharp verdict.

"Yes, ma'am, plumb ridiculous. My only excuse is that they began
scattering lead so sudden I didn't have time to ask many 'Whyfors.' I
reckon we'll just have to call it a Wyoming difference of opinion," he
concluded pleasantly.

"Which means, I suppose, that you are not going to tell me."

"I got so much else to tell y'u that's a heap more important," he
laughed. "Y'u see, I'm enjoyin' my first automobile ride. It was
certainly thoughtful of y'u to ask me to go riding with y'u, Miss
Messiter."

"So you know my name. May I ask how?" was her astonished question.

He gave the low laugh that always seemed to suggest a private source of
amusement of his own. "I suspicioned that might be your name when I say
y'u come a-sailin' down from heaven to gather me up like Enoch."

"Why?"

"Well, ma'am, I happened to drift in to Gimlet Butte two or three days
ago, and while I was up at the depot looking for some freight a train
sashaid in and side tracked a flat car. There was an automobile on that
car addressed to Miss Helen Messiter. Now, automobiles are awful seldom
in this country. I don't seem to remember having seen one before."

"I see. You're quite a Sherlock Holmes. Do you know anything more about
me?"

"I know y'u have just fallen heir to the Lazy D. They say y'u are a
schoolmarm, but I don't believe it."

"Well, I am." Then, "Why don't you believe it?" she added.

He surveyed her with his smile audacious, let his amused eyes wander
down from the mobile face with the wild-rose bloom to the slim young
figure so long and supple, then serenely met her frown.

"Y'u don't look it."

"No? Are you the owner of a composite photograph of the teachers of the
country?"

He enjoyed again his private mirth. "I should like right well to have
the pictures of some of them."

She glanced at him sharply, but he was gazing so innocently at the
purple Shoshones in the distance that she could not give him the snub
she thought he needed.

"You are right. My name is Helen Messiter," she said, by way of
stimulating a counter fund of information. For, though she was a young
woman not much given to curiosity, she was aware of an interest in this
spare, broad-shouldered youth who was such an incarnation of bronzed
vigor.

"Glad to meet y'u, Miss Messiter," he responded, and offered his firm
brown hand in Western fashion.

But she observed resentfully that he did not mention his own name. It
was impossible to suppose that he knew no better, and she was driven
to conclude that he was silent of set purpose. Very well! If he did not
want to introduce himself she was not going to urge it upon him. In a
businesslike manner she gave her attention to eating up the dusty miles.

"Yes, ma'am. I reckon I never was more glad to death to meet a lady than
I was to meet up with y'u," he continued, cheerily. "Y'u sure looked
good to me as y'u come a-foggin' down the road. I fair had been yearnin'
for company but was some discouraged for fear the invitation had
miscarried." He broke off his sardonic raillery and let his level gaze
possess her for a long moment. "Miss Messiter, I'm certainly under
an obligation to y'u I can't repay. Y'u saved my life," he finished
gravely.

"Nonsense."

"Fact."

"It isn't a personal matter at all," she assured him, with a touch of
impatient hauteur.

"It 's a heap personal to me."

In spite of her healthy young resentment she laughed at the way in which
he drawled this out, and with a swift sweep her boyish eyes took in
again his compelling devil-may-care charm. She was a tenderfoot, but
intuition as well as experience taught her that he was unusual enough to
be one of ten thousand. No young Greek god's head could have risen
more superbly above the brick-tanned column of the neck than this
close-cropped curly one. Gray eyes, deep and unwavering and masterful,
looked out of a face as brown as Wyoming. He was got up with no thought
of effect, but the tigerish litheness, the picturesque competency of
him, spake louder than costuming.

"Aren't you really hurt worse than you pretend? I'm sure your ankle
ought to be attended to as soon as possible."

"Don't tell me you're a lady doctor, ma'am," he burlesqued his alarm.

"Can you tell me where the nearest ranch house is?" she asked, ignoring
his diversion.

"The Lazy D is the nearest, I reckon."

"Which direction?"

"North by east, ma'am."

"Then I'll take the most direct road to it.

"In that case I'll thank y'u for my ride and get out here."

"But--why?"

He waved a jaunty hand toward the recent battlefield. "The Lazy D lies
right back of that hill. I expect, mebbe, those wolves might howl again
if we went back."

"Where, then, shall I take you?"

"I hate to trouble y'u to go out of your way.

"I dare say, but I'm going just the same," she told him, dryly.

"If you're right determined--" He interrupted himself to point to the
south. "Do y'u see that camel-back peak over there?"

"The one with the sunshine on its lower edge?"

"That's it, Miss Messiter. They call those two humps the Antelope Peaks.
If y'u can drop me somewhere near there I think I'll manage all right."

"I'm not going to leave you till we reach a house," she informed him
promptly. "You're not fit to walk fifty yards."

"That's right kind of y'u, but I could not think of asking so much. My
friends will find me if y'u leave me where I can work a heliograph."

"Or your enemies," she cut in.

"I hope not. I'd not likely have the luck to get another invitation
right then to go riding with a friendly young lady."

She gave him direct, cool, black-blue eyes that met and searched his.
"I'm not at all sure she is friendly. I shall want to find out the cause
of the trouble you have just had before I make up my mind as to that."

"I judge people by their actions. Y'u didn't wait to find out before
bringing the ambulance into action," he laughed.

"I see you do not mean to tell me."

"You're quite a lawyer, ma'am," he evaded.

"I find you a very slippery witness, then."

"Ask anything y'u like and I'll tell you."

"Very well. Who were those men, and why were they trying to kill you?"

"They turned their wolf loose on me because I shot up one of them
yesterday."

"Dear me! Is it your business to go around shooting people? That's three
I happen to know that you have shot. How many more?"

"No more, ma'am--not recently."

"Well, three is quite enough--recently," she mimicked. "You seem to me a
good deal of a desperado."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Don't say 'Yes, ma'am,' like that, as if it didn't matter in the least
whether you are or not," she ordered.

"No, ma'am."

"Oh!" She broke off with a gesture of impatience at his burlesque of
obedience. "You know what I mean--that you ought to deny it; ought to be
furious at me for suggesting it."

"Ought I?"

"Of course you ought."

"There's a heap of ways I ain't up to specifications," he admitted,
cheerfully.

"And who are they--the men that were attacking you?"

There was a gleam of irrepressible humor in the bold eyes. "Your
cow-punchers, ma'am."

"My cow-punchers?"

"They ce'tainly belong to the Lazy D outfit."

"And you say that you shot one of my men yesterday?" He could see her
getting ready for a declaration of war.

"Down by Willow Creek--Yes, ma'am," he answered, comfortably.

"And why, may I ask?" she flamed

"That's a long story, Miss Messiter. It wouldn't be square for me to get
my version in before your boys. Y'u ask them." He permitted himself a
genial smile, somewhat ironic. "I shouldn't wonder but what they'll give
me a giltedged testimonial as an unhanged horse thief."

"Isn't there such a thing as law in Wyoming?" the girl demanded.

"Lots of it. Y'u can buy just as good law right here as in Kalamazoo."

"I wish I knew where to find it."

"Like to put me in the calaboose?"

"In the penitentiary. Yes, sir!" A moment later the question that was in
her thoughts leaped hotly from her lips. "Who are you, sir, that dare to
commit murder and boast of it?"

She had flicked him on the raw at last. Something that was near to pain
rested for a second in his eyes. "Murder is a hard name, ma'am. And I
didn't say he was daid, or any of the three," came his gentle answer.

"You MEANT to kill them, anyhow."

"Did I?" There was the ghost of a sad smile about his eyes.

"The way you act, a person might think you one of Ned Bannister's men,"
she told him, scornfully.

"I expect you're right."

She repented her a little at a charge so unjust. "If you are not ashamed
of your name why are you so loath to part with it?"

"Y'u didn't ask me my name," he said, a dark flush sweeping his face.

"I ask it now."

Like the light from a snuffed candle the boyish recklessness had gone
out of his face. His jaws were set like a vise and he looked hard as
hammered steel.

"My name is Bannister," he said, coldly.

"Ned Bannister, the outlaw," she let slip, and was aware of a strange
sinking of the heart.

It seemed to her that something sinister came to the surface in his
handsome face. "I reckon we might as well let it go at that," he
returned, with bitter briefness.





Next: The King Of The Big Horn Country

Previous: Breaks One And Makes Another Engagement



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