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A Dinner For Three








From: Bucky O'connor

"I thought we bumped you off down at Epitaph," Leroy said.

"Along with Scott? Well, no. You see, I'm a regular cat to kill, Mr.
Leroy, and I couldn't conscientiously join the angels with so lame a
story as a game laig to explain my coming," said Collins cheerfully.

"In that case--"

"Yes, I understand. You'd be willing to accommodate with a hole in the
haid instead of one in the laig. But I'll not trouble you."

"What are you doing here? Didn't I warn you to attend to your own
business and leave me alone?"

"Seems to me you did load me up with some good advice, but I plumb
forgot to follow it."

The Wolf cursed under his breath. "You came here at your own risk,
then?"

"Well, I did and I didn't," corrected the sheriff easily. "I've got a
five-thousand policy in the Southeastern Life Insurance Company, so I
reckon it's some risk to them. And, by the way, it's a company I can
recommend."

"Does it insure against suicide?" asked Leroy, his masked, smiling face
veiling thinly a ruthless purpose.

"And against hanging. Let me strongly urge you to take out a policy at
once," came the prompt retort.

"You think it necessary?"

"Quite. When you and York Neil and Hardman made an end of Scott you
threw ropes round your own necks. Any locoed tenderfoot would know
that."

The sheriff's unflinching look met the outlaw's black frown serene and
clear-eyed.

"And would he know that you had committed suicide when you ran this
place down and came here?" asked Leroy, with silken cruelty.

"Well, he ought to know it. The fact is, Mr. Leroy, that it hadn't
penetrated my think-tank that this was your hacienda when I came
mavericking in."

"Just out riding for your health?"

"Not exactly. I was looking for Miss Mackenzie. I cut her trail about
six miles from the Rocking Chair and followed it where she wandered
around. The trail led directly away from the ranch toward the mountains.
That didn't make me any easy in my mind. So I just jogged along and
elected myself an investigating committee. I arrived some late, but here
I am, right side up--and so hearty welcome that my friend Cork won't
hear of my leaving at all. He don't do a thing but entertain me--never
lets his attention wander. Oh, I'm the welcome guest, all right. No
doubt about that."

Wolf Leroy turned to Alice. "I think you had better go to your room," he
said gently.

"Oh, no, no; let me stay," she implored. "You would never--you would
never--" The words died on her white lips, but the horror in her eyes
finished the question.

He met her gaze fully, and answered her doggedly. "You're not in this,
Miss Mackenzie. It's between him and me. I shan't allow even you to
interfere."

"But--oh, it is horrible! for two minutes."

He shook his head.

"You must! Please."

"What use?"

Let me see you alone

Her troubled gaze shifted to the strong, brown, sun-baked face of the
man who had put himself in this deadly peril to save her. His keen,
blue-gray eyes, very searching and steady, met hers with a courage
she thought splendid, and her heart cried out passionately against the
sacrifice.

"You shall not do it. Oh, please let me talk it over with you."

"No."

"Have you forgotten already?--and you said you would always remember."
She almost whispered it.

She had stung his consent at last. "Very well," he said, and opened the
door to let her pass into the inner room.

But she noticed that his eyes were hard as jade.

"Don't you see that he came here to save me?" she cried, when they were
alone. "Don't you see it was for me? He didn't come to spy out your
place of hiding."

"I see that he has found it. If I let him go, he will bring back a posse
to take us."

"You could ride across the line into Mexico."

"I could, but I won't."

"But why?"

"Because, Miss Mackenzie, the money we took from the express car of the
Limited is hidden here, and I don't know where it is; because the sun
won't ever rise on a day when Val Collins will drive me out of Arizona."

"I don't know what you mean about the money, but you must let him go.
You spoke of a service I had done you. This is my pay."

"To turn him loose to hunt us down?"

"He'll not trouble you if you let him go."

A sardonic smile touched his face. "A lot you know of him. He thinks it
his duty to rid the earth of vermin like us. He'd never let up till he
got us or we got him. Well, we've got him now, good and plenty. He took
his chances, didn't he? It isn't as if he didn't know what he was up
against. He'll tell you himself it's a square deal. He's game, and he
won't squeal because we win and he has to pay forfeit."

The girl wrung her hands despairingly.

"It's his life or mine--and not only mine, but my men's," continued the
outlaw. "Would you turn a wolf loose from your sheep pen to lead the
pack to the kill?"

"But if he were to promise--"

"We're not talking about the ordinary man--he'd promise anything and lie
to-morrow. But Sheriff Collins won't do it. If you think you can twist a
promise out of him not to take advantage of what he has found out you're
guessing wrong. When you think he's a quitter, just look at that cork
hand of his, and remember how come he to get it. He'll take his medicine
proper, but he'll never crawl."

"There must be some way," she cried desperately,

"Since you make a point of it, I'll give him his chance."

"You'll let him go?" The joy in her voice was tremulously plain.

He laughed, leaning carelessly against the mantelshelf. But his narrowed
eyes watched her vigilantly. "I didn't say I would let him go. What I
said was that I'd give him a chance."

"How?"

"They say he's a dead shot. I'm a few with a gun myself. We'll ride
down to the plains together, and find a good lonely spot suitable for
a graveyard. Then one of us will ride away, and the other will stay, or
perhaps both of us will stay."

She shuddered. "No--no--no. I won't have it."

"Afraid something might happen to me, ma'am?" he asked, with a queer
laugh,

"I won't have it."

"Afraid, perhaps, he might be the one left for the coyotes and the
buzzards?"

She was white to the lips, but at his next word the blood came flaming
back to her cheeks.

"Why don't you tell the truth? Why don't you; say you love him, and be
done with it? Say it and I'll take him back to Tucson with you safe as
if he were a baby."

She covered her face with her hands, but with two steps he had reached
her and captured he hands.

"The truth," he demanded, and his eyes compelled.

"It is to save his life?"

He laughed harshly. "Here's melodrama for you! Yes--to save your lover's
life."

She lifted her eyes to his bravely. "What you say is true. I love him."

Leroy bowed ironically. "I congratulate Mr. Collins, who is now quite
safe, so far as I am concerned. Meanwhile, lest he be jealous of your
absence, shall we return now?"

Some word of sympathy for the reckless scamp trembled on her lips, but
her instinct told her would hold it insult added to injury, and she left
her pity unvoiced.

"If you please."

But as he heeled away she laid a timid hand on his arm. He turned and
looked grimly down at the working face, at the sweet, soft, pitiful
eyes brimming with tears. She was pure woman now, all the caste pride
dissolved in yearning pity.

"Oh, you lamb--you precious lamb," he groaned, and clicked his teeth
shut on the poignant pain of his loss.

"I think you're splendid," she told him. "Oh, I know what you've
done--that you are not good. I know you've wasted your life and lived
with your hand against every man's. But I can't help all that. I look
for the good in you, and I find it. Even in your sins you are not petty.
You know how to rise to an opportunity."

This man of contradictions, forever the creature of his impulses, gave
the lie to her last words by signally failing to rise to this one. He
snatched her to him, and looked down hungry-eyed at her sweet beauty, as
fresh and fragrant as the wild rose in the copse.

"Please," she cried, straining from him with shy, frightened eyes.

For answer he kissed her fiercely on the cheeks, and eyes, and mouth.

"The rest are his, but these are mine," he laughed mirthlessly.

Then, flinging her from him, he led the way into the next room. Flushed
and disheveled, she followed. He had outraged her maiden instincts and
trampled down her traditions of caste, but she had no time to think of
this now.

"If you're through explaining the mechanism of that Winchester to
Sheriff Collins we'll reluctantly dispense with your presence, Mr.
Reilly. We have arranged a temporary treaty of peace," the chief outlaw
said.

Reilly, a huge lout of a fellow with a lowering countenance, ventured
to expostulate. "Ye want to be careful of him. He's quicker'n chain
lightning."

His chief exploded with low-voiced fury. "When I ask your advice, give
it, you fat-brained son of a brand blotter. Until then padlock that
mouth of yours. Vamos."

Reilly vanished, his face a picture of impotent malice, and Leroy
continued:

"We're going to the Rocking Chair in the morning, Mr. Collins--at
least, you and Miss Mackenzie are going there. I'm going part way. We've
arranged a little deal all by our lones, subject to your approval. You
get away without that hole in your head. Miss Mackenzie goes with you,
and I get in return the papers you took off Scott and Webster."

"You mean I am to give up the hunt?" asked Collins.

"Not at all. I'll be glad to death to see you blundering in again when
Miss Mackenzie isn't here to beg you off. The point is that in exchange
for your freedom and Miss Mackenzie's I get those papers you left in a
safety-deposit vault in Epitaph. It'll save me the trouble of sticking
up the First National and winging a few indiscreet citizens of that
burgh. Savvy?"

"That's all you ask?" demanded the surprised sheriff.

"All I ask is to get those papers in my hand and a four-hour start
before you begin the hunt. Is it a deal?"

"It's a deal, but I give it to you straight that I'll be after you as
soon as the four hours are up," returned Collins promptly. "I don't know
what magic Miss Mackenzie used. Still, I must compliment her on getting
us out mighty easy."

But though the sheriff looked smilingly at Alice, that young woman,
usually mistress of herself in all emergencies, did not lift her eyes
to meet his. Indeed, he thought her strangely embarrassed. She was as
flushed and tongue-tied as a country girl in unaccustomed company. She
seemed another woman than the self-possessed young beauty he had met a
month before on the Limited, but he found her shy abashment charming.

"I guess you thought you had come to the end of the passage, Mr.
Collins," suggested the outlaw, with listless curiosity.

"I didn't know whether to order the flowers or not, but 'way down in my
heart I was backing my luck," Collins told him.

"Of course it's understood that you are on parole until we separate,"
said Leroy curtly.

"Of course."

"Then we'll have supper at once, for we'll have to be on the road
early." He clapped his hands together, and the Mexican woman appeared.
Her master flung out a command or two in her own language.

"--poco tiempo,--" she answered, and disappeared.

In a surprisingly short time the meal was ready, set out on a table
white with Irish linen and winking with cut glass and silver.

"Mr. Leroy does not believe at all in doing when in Rome as the Romans
do," Alice explained to Collins, in answer to his start of amazement.
"He's a regular Aladdin. I shouldn't be a bit surprised to see electric
lights come on next."

"One has to attempt sometimes to blot out the forsaken desert," said
Leroy. "Try this cut of slow elk, Miss Mackenzie. I think you'll like
it."

"Slow elk! What is that?" asked the girl, to make talk.

"Mr. Collins will tell you," smiled Leroy.

She turned to the sheriff, who first apologized, with a smile, to his
host. "Slow elk, Miss Mackenzie, is veal that has been rustled. I expect
Mr. Leroy has pressed a stray calf into our Service."

"I see," she flashed. "Pressed veal."

The outlaw smiled at her ready wit, and took on himself the burden of
further explanation. "And this particular slow elk comes from a ranch on
the Aravaipa owned by Mr. Collins. York shot it up in the hills a day or
two ago."

"Shouldn't have been straying so far from its range," suggested Collins,
with a laugh. "But it's good veal, even if I say it that shouldn't."

"Thank you," burlesqued the bandit gravely, with such an ironic touch of
convention that Alice smiled.

After dinner Leroy produced cigars, and with the permission of Miss
Mackenzie the two men smoked while the conversation ran on a topic as
impersonal as literature. A criticism of novels and plays written to
illustrate the frontier was the line into which the discussion fell, and
the girl from the city, listening with a vivid interest, was pleased to
find that these two real men talked with point and a sense of dexterous
turns. She felt a sort of proud proprietorship in their power, and
wished that some of the tailors' models she had met in society, who held
so good a conceit of themselves, might come under the spell of their
strong, tolerant virility. Whatever the difference between them, it
might be truly said of both that they had lived at first hand and come
in touch closely with all the elemental realities. One of them was
a romantic villain and the other an unromantic hero, but her pulsing
emotions morally condemned one no more than the other.

This was the sheer delight of her esthetic sense of fitness, that strong
men engaged in a finish fight could rise to so perfect a courtesy that
an outsider could not have guessed the antagonism that ran between them,
enduring as life.

Leroy gave the signal for breaking up by looking at his watch. "Afraid I
must say 'Lights out.' It's past eleven. We'll have to be up and on
our way with the hooters. Sleep well, Miss Mackenzie. You don't need to
worry about waking. I'll have you called in good time. Buenos noches."

He held the door for her as she passed out; and, in passing, her eyes
rose to meet his.

"--Buenos noches, senor;--I'm sure I shall sleep well to-night," she
said.

It had been the day of Alice Mackenzie' life. Emotions and sensations,
surging through her, had trodden on each other's heels. Woman-like, she
welcomed the darkness to analyze and classify the turbid chaos of her
mind. She had been swept into sympathy with an outlaw, to give him no
worse name. She had felt herself nearer to him than to some honest men
she could name who had offered her their love.

Surely, that had been bad enough, but worse was to follow. This
discerning scamp had torn aside her veils of maiden reserve and exposed
the secret fancy of her heart, unknown before even to herself. She had
confessed love for this big-hearted sheriff and frontiersman. Here
she could plead an ulterior motive. To save his life any deception was
permissible. Yes, but where lay the truth? With that insistent demand of
the outlaw had rushed over her a sudden wave of joy. What could it mean
unless it meant what she would not admit that it could mean? Why, the
man was impossible. He was not of her class. She had scarce seen him a
half-dozen times. Her first meeting with him had been only a month ago.
One month ago--

A remembrance flashed through her that brought her from the bed in a
barefoot search for matches. When the candle was relit he slipped a
chamoisskin pouch from her neck and from it took a sealed envelope. It
was the note in which the sheriff on the night of the train robbery had
written his prediction of how the matter would come out. She was to open
the envelope in a month, and the month was up to-night.

As she tore open the flap it came to her with one of her little flashing
smiles that she could never have guessed under what circumstances she
would read it. By the dim flame of a guttering candle, in a cotton
nightgown borrowed from a Mexican menial, a prisoner of the very man who
had robbed her and the recipient of a practical confession of love
from him not three hours earlier! Surely here was a situation to beggar
romance. But before she had finished reading the reality was still more
unbelievable.

I have just met for the first time the woman I am going to marry if God
is good to one. I am writing this because I want her to know it as soon
as I decently can. Of course, I am not worthy of her, but then I don't
know any man that is.

So the fact goes--I'm bound to marry her if there's nobody else in the
way. This isn't conceit. It is a deep-seated certainty I can't get away
from, and don't want to. When she reads this, she will think it a piece
of foolish presumption. My hope is she will not always think so. Her
Lover,

VAL COLLINS.

Her swift-pulsing heart was behaving very queerly. It seemed to hang
delightfully still, and then jump forward with odd little beats of
joy. She caught a glimpse of her happy face, and blew out the light for
shame, groping her way back to bed with the letter carefully guarded
against crumpling by her hand.

Foolish presumption indeed. Why, he had only seen her once, and he said
he would marry her with never a by-your-leave! Wasn't that what he had
said? She had to strike another match to learn the lines that had not
stuck word for word in her mind, and after that another match to get a
picture of the scrawl to visualize in the dark.

How dared he take her for granted? But what a masterly way of wooing for
the right man! What idiotic folly if he had been the wrong one! Was he,
then, the right one? She questioned herself closely, but came to no more
definite answer than this--that her heart went glad with a sweet joy to
know he wanted to marry her.

She resolved to put him from her mind, and in this resolve she fell at
last into smiling sleep.





Next: A Villon Of The Desert

Previous: Hidden Valley



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