Abruptly she shot her challenge at him. “Who are you?”
“Water,” he gasped.
One swift, searching look the girl gave him, then “Wait!” she ordered, and was off into the mesquit on the run. Three minutes later the tenderfoot heard her galloping through the brush. With a quick, tight rein she drew up, swung from the saddle expertly as a vaquero, and began to untie a canteen held by buckskin thongs to the side of the saddle.
He drank long, draining the vessel to the last drop.
From her saddle bags she brought two sandwiches wrapped in oiled paper.
“You’re hungry, too, I expect,” she said, her eyes shining with tender pity.
She observed that he did not wolf his food, voracious though he was. While he ate she returned 21 to the fire with the running iron and heaped live coals around the end of it.
“You’ve had a pretty tough time of it,” she called across to him gently.
“It hasn’t been exactly a picnic, but I’m all right now.”
The girl liked the way he said it. Whatever else he was—and already faint doubts were beginning to stir in her—he was not a quitter.
“You were about all in,” she said, watching him.
“Just about one little kick left in me,” he smiled.
“That’s what I thought.”
She busied herself over the fire inspecting the iron. The man watched her curiously. What could it mean? A cow killed wantonly, a calf bawling with pain and fear, and this girl responsible for it. The tenderfoot could not down the suspicion stirring in his mind. He knew little of the cattle country. But he had read books and had spent a week in Mesa not entirely in vain. The dead cow with the little stain of red down its nose pointed surely to one thing. He was near enough to see a hole in the forehead just above the eyes. Instinctively his gaze passed to the rifle lying in the sand close to his hand. Her back was still turned to him. He leaned over, drew the gun to him, and threw out an empty shell from the barrel.
At the click of the lever the girl swung around upon him.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. 22
He put the rifle down hurriedly. “Just seeing what make it is.”
“And what make is it?” she flashed.
He was trapped. “I hadn’t found out yet,” he stammered.
“No, but you found out there was an empty shell in it,” she retorted quickly.
Their eyes fastened. She was gray as ashes, but she did not flinch. By chance he had stumbled upon the crime of crimes in Cattleland, had caught a rustler redhanded at work. Looking into the fine face, nostrils delicately fashioned, eyes clear and deep, the thing was scarce credible of her. Why, she could not be a day more than twenty, and in every line of her was the look of pride, of good blood.
“Yes, I happened to throw it out,” he apologized.
But she would have no evasion, would not let his doubts sleep. There was superb courage in the scornful ferocity with which she retorted.
“Happened! And I suppose you happened to notice that the brand on the cow is a Bar Double G, while that on the calf is different.”
“No, I haven’t noticed that.”
“Plenty of time to see it yet.” Then, with a swift blaze of feeling, “What’s the use of pretending? I know what you think.”
“Then you know more than I do. My thoughts don’t go any farther than this, that you have saved my life and I’m grateful for it.” 23
“I know better. You think I’m a rustler. But don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it.”
Brought up in an atmosphere of semi-barbaric traditions, silken-strong, with instincts unwarped by social pressure, she was what the sun and wind and freedom of Arizona had made her, a poetic creation far from commonplace. So he judged her, and in spite of the dastardly thing she had done he sensed an innate refinement strangely at variance with the circumstances.
“All right. I won’t,” he answered, with a faint smile.
“Now you’ve got to pay for your sandwiches by making yourself useful. I’m going to finish this job.” She said it with an edge of self-scorn. He guessed her furious with self-contempt.
Under her directions he knelt on the calf so as to hold it steady while she plied the hot iron. The odor of burnt hair and flesh was already acrid in his nostrils. Upon the red flank F was written in raw, seared flesh. He judged that the brand she wanted was not yet complete. Probably the iron had got too cold to finish the work, and she had been forced to reheat it.
The little hand that held the running iron was trembling. Looking up, the tenderfoot saw that she was white enough to faint.
“I can’t do it. You’ll have to let me hold him while you blur the brand,” she told him.
They changed places. She set her teeth to it and 24 held the calf steady, but the brander noticed that she had to look away when the red-hot iron came near the flesh of the victim.
“Blur the brand right out. Do it quick, please,” she urged.
A sizzle of burning skin, a piteous wail from the tortured animal, an acrid pungent odor, and the thing was done. The girl got to her feet, quivering like an aspen.
“Have you a knife?” she asked faintly.
“Cut the rope.”
The calf staggered to all fours, shook itself together, and went bawling to the dead mother.
The girl drew a deep breath. “They say it does not hurt except while it is being done.”
His bleak eyes met hers stonily. “And of course it will soon get used to doing without its mother. That is a mere detail.”
A shudder went through her.
The whole thing was incomprehensible to him. Why under heaven had she done it? How could one so sensitive have done a wanton cruel thing like this? Her reason he could not fathom. The facts that confronted him were that she had done it, and had meant to carry the crime through. Only detection had changed her purpose.
She turned upon him, plainly sick of the whole business. “Let’s get away from here. Where’s your horse?” 25
“I haven’t any. I started on foot and got lost.”
Sharply her keen eyes fixed him. How could a man have got lost near Mammoth and wandered here? He would have had to cross the range, and even a child would have known enough to turn back into the valley where the town lay.
“How long ago?”
“Day before yesterday.” He added after a moment: “I was looking for a job.”
She took in the soft hands and the unweathered skin of the dark face. “What sort of a job?”
“Anything I can do.”
“But what can you do?”
“I can ride.”
She must take him home with her, of course, and feed and rest him. That went without saying. But what after that? He knew too much to be turned adrift with the story of what he had seen. If she could get a hold on him—whether of fear or of gratitude—so as to insure his silence, the truth might yet be kept quiet. At least she could try.
“Did you ever ride the range?”
“What sort of work have you done?”
After a scarcely noticeable pause, “Clerical work,” he answered. 26
“You’re from the East?” she suggested, her eyes narrowing.
“My name is Melissy Lee,” she told him, watching him very steadily.
Once more the least of pauses. “Mine is Diller—James Diller.”
“That’s funny. I know another man of that name. At least, I know him by sight.”
The man who had called himself Diller grew wary. “It’s a