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The Danger Line

From: Brand Blotters

Though Champ Lee had business in Mesa next day that would not be denied,
he was singularly loath to leave the ranch. He wanted to stay close to
Melissy until the denouement of the hunt for the stage robber. On the
other hand, it was well known that his contest with Morse for the Monte
Cristo was up for a hearing. To stay at home would have been a confession
of his anxiety that he did not want to make. But it was only after
repeated charges to his daughter to call him up by telephone immediately
if anything happened that he could bring himself to ride away.

He was scarcely out of sight when a Mexican vaquero rode in with the
information that old Antonio, on his way to the post at Three Pines with a
second drove of sheep, had twisted his ankle badly about fifteen miles
from the ranch. After trying in vain to pick up a herder at Mesa by
telephone, Melissy was driven to the only feasible course left her, to
make the drive herself in place of Antonio. There were fifteen hundred
sheep in the bunch, and they must be taken care of at once by somebody
competent for the task. She knew she could handle them, for it had amused
her to take charge of a herd often for an hour or two at a time. The long
stretch over the desert would be wearisome and monotonous, but she had the
slim, muscular tenacity of a half-grown boy. It did not matter what she
wanted to do. The thing to which she came back always was that the sheep
must be taken care of.

She left directions with Jim for taking care of the place, changed to a
khaki skirt and jacket, slapped a saddle on her bronco, and disappeared
across country among the undulations of the sandhills. A tenderfoot would
have been hopelessly lost in the sameness of these hills and washes, but
Melissy knew them as a city dweller does his streets. Straight as an arrow
she went to her mark. The tinkle of distant sheep-bells greeted her after
some hours' travel, and soon the low, ceaseless bleating of the herd.

The girl found Antonio propped against a pinon tree, solacing himself
philosophically with cigarettes. He was surprised to see her, but made
only a slight objection to her taking his place. His ankle was paining him
a good deal, and he was very glad to get the chance to pull himself to her
saddle and ride back to the ranch.

A few quick words sent the dog Colin out among the sheep, by now
scattered far and wide over the hill. They presently came pouring toward
her, diverged westward, and massed at the base of a butte rising from a
dry arroyo. The journey had begun, and hour after hour it continued
through the hot day, always in a cloud of dust flung up by the sheep,
sometimes through the heavy sand of a wash, often over slopes of shale,
not seldom through thick cactus beds that shredded her skirt and tore like
fierce, sharp fingers at her legging-protected ankles. The great gray
desert still stretched before her to the horizon's edge, and still she
flung the miles behind her with the long, rhythmic stride that was her
birthright from the hills. A strong man, unused to it, would have been
staggering with stiff fatigue, but this slender girl held the trail with
light grace, her weight still carried springily on her small ankles.

Once she rested for a few minutes, flinging herself down into the sand at
length, her head thrown back from the full brown throat so that she could
gaze into the unstained sky of blue. Presently the claims of this planet
made themselves heard, for she, too, was elemental and a creature of
instinct. The earth was awake and palpitating with life, the low,
indefatigable life of creeping things and vegetation persisting even in
this waste of rock and sand.

But she could not rest long, for Diablo canyon must be reached before dark.
The sheep would be very thirsty by the time they arrived, and she could
not risk letting them tear down the precipitous edge among the sharp rocks
in the dark. Already over the sand stretches a peculiar liquid glow was
flooding, so that the whole desert seemed afire. The burning sun had
slipped behind a saddle of the purple peaks, leaving a brilliant horizon
of many mingled shades.

It was as she came forward to the canyon's edge in this luminous dusk that
Melissy became aware of a distant figure on horseback, silhouetted for a
moment against the skyline. One glance was all she got of it, for she was
very busy with the sheep, working them leisurely toward the black chasm
that seemed to yawn for them. High rock walls girt the canyon, gigantic and
bottomless in the gloom. A dizzy trail zigzagged back and forth to the
pool below, and along this she and the collie skilfully sent the eager,
thirsty animals.

The mass of the sheep were still huddled on the edge of the ravine when
there came the thud of horses' hoofs and the crack of revolvers,
accompanied by hoarse, triumphant yells and cries. Melissy knew instantly
what it was--the attack of cattlemen upon her defenseless flock. They had
waited until the sheep were on the edge of the precipice, and now they
were going to drive the poor creatures down upon the rocks two hundred
feet below. Her heart leaped to her throat, but scarce more quickly than
she upon a huge boulder bordering the trail.

"Back! Keep back!" she heard herself crying, and even as she spoke a
bullet whistled through the rim of her felt hat.

Standing there boldly, unconscious of danger, the wind draped and defined
the long lines of her figure like those of the Winged Victory.

The foremost rider galloped past, waving his sombrero and shooting into
the frightened mass in front of him. Within a dozen feet of her he turned
his revolver upon the girl, then, with an oath of recognition, dragged his
pony back upon its haunches. Another horse slithered into it, and a

"It's 'Lissie Lee!" a voice cried in astonishment; and another, with a
startled oath, "You're right, Bob!"

The first rider gave his pony the spur, swung it from the trail in a
half-circle which brought it back at the very edge of the ravine, and
blocked the forward pour of terror-stricken sheep. Twice his revolver rang
out. The girl's heart stood still, for the man was Norris, and it seemed
for an instant as if he must be swept over the precipice by the stampede.
The leaders braced themselves to stop, but were slowly pushed forward
toward the edge. One of the other riders had by this time joined the
daring cowpuncher, and together they stemmed the tide. The pressure on the
trail relaxed and the sheep began to mill around and around.

It was many minutes before they were sufficiently quieted to trust upon
the trail again, but at last the men got them safely to the bottom, with
the exception of two or three killed in the descent.

Her responsibility for the safety of the sheep gone, the girl began to
crawl down the dark trail. She could not see a yard in front of her, and
at each step the path seemed to end in a gulf of darkness. She could not
be sure she was on the trail at all, and her nerve was shaken by the
experience through which she had just passed. Presently she stopped and
waited, for the first time in her life definitely and physically afraid.
She stood there trembling, a long, long time it seemed to her, surrounded
by the impenetrable blackness of night.

Then a voice came to her.


She answered, and the voice came slowly nearer.

"You're off the trail," it told her presently, just before a human figure
defined itself in the gloom.

"I'm afraid," she sobbed.

A strong hand came from nowhere and caught hers. An arm slipped around her

"Don't be afraid, little girl. I'll see no harm comes to you," the man
said to her with a quick, fierce tenderness.

The comfort of his support was unspeakable. It stole into her heart like
water to the roots of thirsty plants. To feel her head against his
shoulder, to know he held her tight, meant safety and life. He had told
her not to be afraid, and she was so no longer.

"You shot at me," she murmured in reproach.

"I didn't know. We thought it was Bellamy's herd. But it's true, God
forgive me! I did."

There was in his voice the warm throb of emotion, and in his eyes
something she had never seen before in those of any human being. Like
stars they were, swimming in light, glowing with the exultation of the
triumph he was living. She was a splendid young animal, untaught of life,
generous, passionate, tempestuous, and as her pliant, supple body lay
against his some sex instinct old as creation stirred potently within her.
She had found her mate. It came to her as innocently as the same impulse
comes to the doe when the spring freshets are seeking the river, and as
innocently her lips met his in their first kiss of surrender. Something
irradiated her, softened her, warmed her. Was it love? She did not know,
but as yet she was still happy in the glow of it.

Slowly, hand in hand, they worked back to the trail and down it to the
bottom of the canyon. The soft velvet night enwrapped them. It shut them
from the world and left them one to one. From the meeting palms strange
electric currents tingled through the girl and flushed her to an ecstasy
of emotion.

A camp fire was already burning cheerfully when they reached the base of
the descent. A man came forward to meet them. He glanced curiously at the
girl after she came within the circle of light. Her eyes were shining as
from some inner glow, and she was warm with a soft color that vitalized
her beauty. Then his gaze passed to take in with narrowed lids her

"I see you found her," he said dryly.

"Yes, I found her, Bob."

He answered the spirit of Farnum's words rather than the letter of them,
nor could he keep out of his bearing and his handsome face the exultation
that betrayed success.

"H'mp!" Farnum turned from him and addressed the girl: "I suppose Norris
has explained our mistake and eaten crow for all of us, Miss Lee. I don't
see how come we to make such a blame' fool mistake. It was gitting dark,
and we took your skirt for a greaser's blanket. It's ce'tainly on us."

"Yes, he has explained."

"Well, there won't any amount of explaining square the thing. We might 'a'
done you a terrible injury, Miss Lee. It was gilt-edged luck for us that
you thought to jump on that rock and holler."

"I was thinking of the sheep," she said.

"Well, you saved them, and I'm right glad of it. We ain't got any use for
Mary's little trotter, but your father's square about his. He keeps them
herded up on his own range. We may not like it, but we ce'tainly aren't
going to the length of attackin' his herd." Farnum's gaze took in her
slender girlishness, and he voiced the question in his mind. "How in time
do you happen to be sheep-herding all by your lone a thousand miles from
nowhere, Miss Lee?"

She explained the circumstances after she had moved forward to warm
herself by the fire. For already night was bringing a chill breeze with
it. The man cooking the coffee looked up and nodded pleasantly, continuing
his work. Norris dragged up a couple of saddle blankets and spread them on
the ground for her to sit upon.

"You don't have to do a thing but boss this outfit," he told her with his
gay smile. "You're queen of the range to-night, and we're your herders or
your punchers, whichever you want to call us. To-morrow morning two of us
are going to drive these sheep on to the trading post for you, and the
other one is going to see you safe back home. It's all arranged."

They were as good as his word. She could not move from her place to help
herself. It was their pleasure to wait upon her as if she had really been
a queen and they her subjects. Melissy was very tired, but she enjoyed
their deference greatly. She was still young enough to find delight in the
fact that three young and more or less good-looking men were vying with
each other to anticipate her needs.

Like them, she ate and drank ravenously of the sandwiches and the strong
coffee, though before the meal was over she found herself nodding
drowsily. The tactful courtesy of these rough fellows was perfect. They
got the best they had for her of their blankets, dragged a pinon root to
feed the glowing coals, and with cheerful farewells of "Buenos Noches"
retired around a bend in the canyon and lit another fire for themselves.

The girl snuggled down into the warmth of the blankets and stretched her
weary limbs in delicious rest. She did not mean to go to sleep for a long
time. She had much to think about. So she looked up the black sheer canyon
walls to the deep blue, starry sky above, and relived her day in memory.

A strange excitement tingled through her, born of shame and shyness and
fear, and of something else she did not understand, something which had
lain banked in her nature like a fire since childhood and now threw forth
its first flame of heat. What did it mean, that passionate fierceness with
which her lips had clung to his? She liked him, of course, but surely
liking would not explain the pulse that her first kiss had sent leaping
through her blood like wine. Did she love him?

Then why did she distrust him? Why was there fear in her sober second
thought of him? Had she done wrong? For the moment all her maiden defenses
had been wiped out and he had ridden roughshod over her reserves. But
somewhere in her a bell of warning was ringing. The poignant sting of sex
appeal had come home to her for the first time. Wherefore in this frank
child of the wilderness had been born a shy shame, a vague trembling for
herself that marked a change. At sunrise she had been still treading gayly
the primrose path of childhood; at sunset she had entered upon her
heritage of womanhood.

The sun had climbed high and was peering down the walls of the gulch when
she awoke. She did not at once realize where she was, but came presently
to a blinking consciousness of her surroundings. The rock wall on one side
was still shadowed, while the painted side of the other was warm with the
light which poured upon it. The Gothic spires, the Moorish domes, the
weird and mysterious caves, which last night had given more than a touch
of awe to her majestic bedchamber, now looked a good deal less like the
ruins of mediaeval castles and the homes of elfin sprites and gnomes.

"Buenos dios, muchacha," a voice called cheerfully to her.

She did not need to turn to know to whom it belonged. Among a thousand she
would have recognized its tone of vibrant warmth.

"Buenos," she answered, and, rising hurriedly, she fled to rearrange her
hair and dress.

It was nearly a quarter of an hour later that she reappeared, her thick
coils of ebon-hued tresses shining in the sun, her skirt smoothed to her
satisfaction, and the effects of feminine touches otherwise visible upon
her fresh, cool person.

"Breakfast is served," Norris sang out.

"Dinner would be nearer it," she laughed. "Why in the world didn't you
boys waken me? What time is it, anyhow?"

"It's not very late--a little past noon maybe. You were all tired out with
your tramp yesterday. I didn't see why you shouldn't have your sleep

He was pouring a cup of black coffee for her from the smoky pot, and she
looked around expectantly for the others. Simultaneously she remembered
that she had not heard the bleating of the sheep.

"Where are the others--Mr. Farnum and Sam? And have you the sheep all
gagged?" she laughed.

He gave her that odd look of smoldering eyes behind half-shut lids.

"The boys have gone on to finish the drive for you. They started before
sun-up this morning. I'm elected to see you back home safely."


Her protest died unspoken. She could not very well frame it in words, and
before his bold, possessive eyes the girl's long, dark lashes wavered to
the cheeks into which the hot blood was beating. Nevertheless, the feeling
existed that she wished one of the others had stayed instead of him. It
was born, no doubt, partly of the wave of shyness running through her,
but partly too of instinctive maidenly resistance to something in his
look, in the assurance of his manner, that seemed to claim too much. Last
night he had taken her by storm and at advantage. Something of shame
stirred in her that he had found her so easy a conquest, something too of
a new vague fear of herself. She resented the fact that he could so move
her, even though she still felt the charm of his personal presence. She
meant to hold herself in abeyance, to make sure of herself and of him
before she went further.

But the cowpuncher had no intention of letting her regain so fully control
of her emotions. Experience of more than one young woman had taught him
that scruples were likely to assert themselves after reflection, and he
purposed giving her no time for that to-day.

He did not count in vain upon the intimacy of companionship forced upon
them by the circumstances, nor upon the skill with which he knew how to
make the most of his manifold attractions. His role was that of the
comrade, gay with good spirits and warm with friendliness, solicitous of
her needs, but not oppressively so. If her glimpse of him at breakfast had
given the girl a vague alarm, she laughed her fears away later before his
open good humor.

There had been a time when he had been a part of that big world "back in
the States," peopled so generously by her unfettered imagination. He knew
how to talk, and entertainingly, of books and people, of events and
places he had known. She had not knowledge enough of life to doubt his
stories, nor did she resent it that he spoke of this her native section
with the slighting manner of one who patronized it with his presence.
Though she loved passionately her Arizona, she guessed its crudeness, and
her fancy magnified the wonders of that southern civilization from which
it was so far cut off.

Farnum had left his horse for the girl, and after breakfast the cowpuncher
saddled the broncos and brought them up. Melissy had washed the dishes,
filled his canteen, and packed the saddle bags. Soon they were off,
climbing slowly the trail that led up the canyon wall. She saw the carcass
of a dead sheep lying on the rocks half way down the cliff, and had spoken
of it before she could stop herself.

"What is that? Isn't it----?"

"Looks to me like a boulder," lied her escort unblushingly. There was no
use, he judged, in recalling unpleasant memories.

Nor did she long remember. The dry, exhilarating sunshine and the sting of
gentle, wide-swept breezes, the pleasure of swift motion and the ring of
that exultingly boyish voice beside her, combined to call the youth in her
to rejoice. Firm in the saddle she rode, as graceful a picture of piquant
girlhood as could be conceived, thrilling to the silent voices of the
desert. They traveled in a sunlit sea of space, under a sky of blue, in
which tenuous cloud lakes floated. Once they came on a small bunch of hill
cattle which went flying like deer into the covert of a draw. A
rattlesnake above a prairie dog's hole slid into the mesquit. A swift
watched them from the top of a smooth rock, motionless so long as they
could see. She loved it all, this immense, deserted world of space filled
with its multitudinous dwellers.

They unsaddled at Dead Cow Creek, hobbled the ponies, and ate supper.
Norris seemed in no hurry to resaddle. He lay stretched carelessly at full
length, his eyes upon her with veiled admiration. She sat upright, her
gaze on the sunset with its splashes of topaz and crimson and saffron,
watching the tints soften and mellow as dusk fell. Every minute now
brought its swift quota of changing beauty. A violet haze enveloped the
purple mountains, and in the crotch of the hills swam a lake of indigo.
The raw, untempered glare of the sun was giving place to a limitless pour
of silvery moonlight.

Her eyes were full of the soft loveliness of the hour when she turned them
upon her companion. He answered promptly her unspoken question.

"You bet it is! A night for the gods--or for lovers."

He said it in a murmur, his eyes full on hers, and his look wrenched her
from her mood. The mask of comradeship was gone. He looked at her
hungrily, as might a lover to whom all spiritual heights were denied.

Her sooty lashes fell before this sinister spirit she had evoked, but were
raised instantly at the sound of him drawing his body toward her.
Inevitably there was a good deal of the young animal in her superbly
healthy body. She had been close to nature all day, the riotous passion of
spring flowing free in her as in the warm earth herself. But the magic of
the mystic hills had lifted her beyond the merely personal. Some sense of
grossness in him for the first time seared across her brain. She started
up, and her face told him she had taken alarm.

"We must be going," she cried.

He got to his feet. "No hurry, sweetheart."

The look in his face startled her. It was new to her in her experience of
men. Never before had she met elemental lust.

"You're near enough," she cautioned sharply.

He cursed softly his maladroitness.

"I was nearer last night, honey," he reminded her.

"Last night isn't to-night."

He hesitated. Should he rush her defenses, bury her protests in kisses? Or
should he talk her out of this harsh mood? Last night she had been his.
There were moments during the day when she had responded to him as a
musical instrument does to skilled fingers. But for the moment his power
over her was gone. And he was impatient of delay.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked roughly.

"We'll start at once."



Frightened though she was, her gaze held steadily to his. It was the same
instinct in her that makes one look a dangerous wild beast straight in the

"What's got into you?" he demanded sullenly.

"I'm going home."

"After a while."


"I reckon not just yet. It's my say-so."

"Don't you dare stop me."

The passion in him warred with prudence. He temporized. "Why, honey! I'm
the man that loves you."

She would not see his outstretched hands.

"Then saddle my horse."

"By God, no! You're going to listen to me."

His anger ripped out unexpectedly, even to him. Whatever fear she felt,
the girl crushed down. He must not know her heart was drowned in terror.

"I'll listen after we've started."

He cursed her fickleness. "What's ailin' you, girl? I ain't a man to be
put off this way."

"Don't forget you're in Arizona," she warned.

He understood what she meant. In the ranch country no man could with
impunity insult a woman.

Standing defiantly before him, her pliant form very straight, the
underlying blood beating softly under the golden brown of her cheeks, one
of the thick braids of her heavy, blue-black hair falling across the
breast that rose and fell a little fast, she was no less than a challenge
of Nature to him. He looked into a mobile face as daring and as passionate
as his own, warm with the life of innocent youth, and the dark blood
mantled his face.

"Saddle the horses," she commanded.

"When I get good and ready."


"No, ma'am. We're going to have a talk first."

She walked across to the place where her pony grazed, slipped on the
bridle, and brought the animal back to the saddle. Norris watched her
fitting the blankets and tightening the cinch without a word, his face
growing blacker every moment. Before she could start he strode forward and
caught the rein.

"I've got something to say to you," he told her rudely. "You're not going
now. So that's all about it."

Her lips tightened. "Let go of my horse."

"We'll talk first."

"Do you think you can force me to stay here?"

"You're going to hear what I've got to say."

"You bully!"

"I'll tell what I know--Miss Hold-up."

"Tell it!" she cried.

He laughed harshly, his narrowed eyes watching her closely. "If you throw
me down now, I'll ce'tainly tell it. Be reasonable, girl."

"Let go my rein!"

"I've had enough of this. Tumble off that horse, or I'll pull you off."

Her dark eyes flashed scorn of him. "You coward! Do you think I'm afraid
of you? Stand back!"

The man looked long at her, his teeth set; then caught at her strong
little wrist. With a quick wrench she freed it, her eyes glowing like live

"You dare!" she panted.

Her quirt rose and fell, the lash burning his wrist like a band of fire.
With a furious oath he dropped his hand from the rein. Like a flash she
was off, had dug her heels home, and was galloping into the moonlight
recklessly as fast as she could send forward her pony. Stark terror had
her by the throat. The fear of him flooded her whole being. Not till the
drumming hoofs had carried her far did other emotions move her.

She was furious with him, and with herself for having been imposed upon by
him. His beauty, his grace, his debonair manner--they were all hateful to
her now. She had thought him a god among men, and he was of common clay.
It was her vanity that was wounded, not her heart. She scourged herself
because she had been so easily deceived, because she had let herself
become a victim of his good looks and his impudence. For that she had let
him kiss her--yes, and had returned his kiss--she was heartily
contemptuous of herself. Always she had held herself with an instinctive
pride, but in her passion of abandonment the tears confessed now that this
pride had been humbled to the dust.

This gusty weather of the spirit, now of chastened pride and now of bitter
anger, carried her even through the group of live-oaks which looked down
upon the silent houses of the ranch, lying in a sea of splendid moon-beat.
She was so much less confident of herself than usual that she made up her
mind to tell her father the whole story of the hold-up and of what this
man had threatened.

This resolution comforted her, and it was with something approaching
calmness that she rode past the corral fence and swung from the saddle in
front of the house.

Next: Jack Goes To The Head Of The Class

Previous: The Boone-bellamy Feud Is Renewed

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