The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 23

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Chapter XXIII
In the Pit

BEULAH shut her eyes to steady herself. From the impact of her fall she was still shaken. Moreover, though she had shot many a rattlesnake, this was the first time she had ever been flung head first into the den of one. It would have been easy to faint, but she denied herself the luxury of it and resolutely fought back the swimming lightness in her head.

Presently she began to take stock of her situation. The prospect hole was circular in form, about ten feet across and nine feet deep. The walls were of rock and smooth clay. Whatever timbering had been left by the prospector was rotted beyond use. It crumbled at the weight of her foot.

How was she to get out? Of course, she would find some way, she told herself. But how? Blacky was tied to a bush not fifty yards away, and fastened to the saddle horn was the rope that would have solved her problem quickly enough. If she had it here— But it might as well be at Cheyenne for all the good it would do her now.

Perhaps she could dig footholds in the wall by means of which she could climb out. Unbuckling the spur from her heel, she used the rowel as a knife to jab a hole in the clay. After half an hour of persistent work she looked at the result in dismay. She had gouged a hollow, but it was not one where her foot could rest while she made steps above.

Every few minutes Beulah stopped work to shout for help. It was not likely that anybody would be passing. Probably she had been the only person on this hill for months. But she dared not miss any chance.

For it was coming home to her that she might die of starvation in this prison long before her people found the place. By morning search parties would be out over the hills looking for her. But who would think to find her away over on Del Oro? If Brad had carried out his threat immediately and gone down to Battle Butte, nobody would know even the general direction in which to seek.

With every hour Beulah grew more troubled. Late in the afternoon she fired a fourth shot from her revolver in the hope that some one might hear the sound and investigate. The sun set early for her. She watched its rays climb the wall of her prison while she worked half-heartedly with the spur. After a time the light began to fade, darkness swept over the land, and she had to keep moving in order not to chill.

Never had she known such a night. It seemed to the tortured girl that morning would never come. She counted the stars above her. Sometimes there were more. Sometimes fewer. After an eternity they began to fade out in the sky. Day was at hand.

She fired the fifth shot from her revolver. Her voice was hoarse from shouting, but she called every few minutes. Then, when she was at the low ebb of hope, there came an answer to her call. She fired her last shot. She called and shouted again and again. The voice that came back to her was close at hand.

"I'm down in the prospect hole," she cried.

Another moment, and she was looking up into the face of a man, Dan Meldrum. In vacant astonishment he gazed down at her.

"Whad you doing here?" he asked roughly.

"I fell in. I 've been here all night." Her voice broke a little. "Oh, I'm so glad you 've come."

It was of no importance that he was a man she detested, one who had quarreled with her father and been thrashed by her brother for insulting her. All she thought of was that help had come to her at last and she was now safe.

He stared down at her with a kind of drunken malevolence.

"So you fell in, eh?"

"Yes. Please help me out right away. My riata is tied to Blacky's saddle."

He looked around. "Where?"

"Is n't Blacky there? He must have broken loose, then. Never mind. Pass me down the end of a young sapling and you can pull me up."

"Can I?"

For the first time she felt a shock of alarm. There was in his voice something that chilled her, something inexpressibly cruel.

"I 'll see my father rewards you. I 'll see you get well paid," she promised, and the inflection of the words was an entreaty.

"You will, eh?"

"Anything you want," she hurried on. "Name it. If we can give it to you, I promise it."

His drunken brain was functioning slowly. This was the girl who had betrayed him up in Chicito Cañon, the one who had frustrated his revenge at Hart's. On account of her young Rutherford had given him the beating of his life and Hal had driven him from Huerfano Park. First and last she was the rock upon which his fortunes had split. Now chance had delivered her into his hands. What should he do with her? How could he safely make the most of the opportunity?

It did not for an instant occur to him to haul her from the pit and send her rejoicing on the homeward way. He intended to make her pay in full. But how? How get his revenge and not jeopardize his own safety?

"Won't you hurry, please?" she pleaded. "I'm hungry—and thirsty. I 've been here all night and most of yesterday. It's been … rather awful."

He rubbed his rough, unshaven cheek while his little pig eyes looked down into hers. "Tha' so? Well, I dunno as it's any business of mine where you spend the night or how long you stay there. I had it put up to me to lay off 'n interfering with you. Seems like yore family got notions I was insulting you. That young bully Jeff jumped me whilst I was n't looking and beat me up. Hal Rutherford ordered me to pull my freight. That's all right. I won't interfere in what don't concern me. Yore family says 'Hands off!' Fine. Suits me. Stay there or get out. It's none of my business. See?"

"You don't mean you 'll … leave me here?" she cried in horror.

"Sure," he exulted. "If I pulled you out of there, like as not you'd have me beat up again. None o' my business! That's what yore folks have been drilling into me. I reckon they 're right. Anyhow, I 'll play it safe."

"But— Oh, you can't do that. Even you can't do such a thing," she cried desperately. "Why, men don't do things like that."

"Don't they? Watch me, missie." He leaned over the pit, his broken, tobacco-stained teeth showing in an evil grin. "Just keep an eye on yore Uncle Dan. Nobody ever yet done me a meanness and got away with it. I reckon the Rutherfords won't be the first. It ain't on the cyards," he boasted.

"You 're going away … to leave me here … to starve?"

"Who said anything about going away? I 'll stick around for a while. It's none of my business whether you starve or live high. Do just as you please about that. I 'll let you alone, like I promised Jeff I would. You Rutherfords have got no call to object to being starved, anyhow. Whad you do to Dave Dingwell in Chicito?"

After all, she was only a girl in spite of her little feminine ferocities and her pride and her gameness. She had passed through a terrible experience, had come out of it to apparent safety and had been thrown back into despair. It was natural that sobs should shake her slender body as she leaned against the quartz wall of her prison and buried her head in her forearm.

When presently the sobs grew fewer and less violent, Beulah became aware without looking up that her tormentor had taken away his malignant presence. This was at first a relief, but as the hours passed an acute fear seized her. Had he left her alone to die? In spite of her knowledge of the man, she had clung to the hope that he would relent. But if he had gone—

She began again to call at short intervals for help. Sometimes tears of self-pity choked her voice. More than once she beat her brown fists against the rock in an ecstasy of terror.

Then again he was looking down at her, a hulk of venom, eyes bleared with the liquor he had been drinking.

"Were you calling me, missie?" he jeered.

"Let me out," she demanded. "When my brothers find me—"

"If they find you," he corrected with a hiccough.

"They 'll find me. By this time everybody in Huerfano Park is searching for me. Before night half of Battle Butte will be in the saddle. Well, when they find me, do you think you won't be punished for this?"

"For what?" demanded the man. "You fell in. I have n't touched you."

"Will that help you, do you think?"

His rage broke into speech. "You 're aimin' to stop my clock, are you? Take another guess, you mischief-making vixen. What's to prevent me from emptying my forty-four into you when I get good and ready, then hitting the trail for Mexico?"

She knew he was speaking the thoughts that had been drifting through his mind in whiskey-lit ruminations. That he was a wanton killer she had always heard. If he could persuade himself it could be done with safety, he would not hesitate to make an end of her.

This was the sort of danger she could fight against—and she did.

"I 'll tell you what's to prevent you," she flung back, as it were in a kind of careless scorn. "Your fondness for your worthless hide. If they find me shot to death, they will know who did it. You could n't hide deep enough in Chihuahua to escape them. My father would never rest till he had made an end of you."

Her argument sounded appallingly reasonable to him. He knew the Rutherfords. They would make him pay his debt to them with usury.

To stimulate his mind he took another drink, after which he stared down at her a long time in sullen, sulky silence. She managed at the same time to irritate him and tempt him and fill his coward heart with fear of consequences. Through the back of his brain from the first there had been filtering thoughts that were like crouching demons. They reached toward her and drew back in alarm. He was too white-livered to go through with his villainy boldly.

He recorked the bottle and put it in his hip pocket. "’Nough said," he blustered. "Me, I 'll git on my hawss and be joggin' along to Mex. I 'll take chances on their finding you before you 're starved. After that it won't matter to me when they light on yore body."

"Oh, yes, it will," she corrected him promptly, "I'm going to write a note and tell just what has happened. It will be found beside me in case they … don't reach here in time."

The veins in his blotched face stood out as he glared down at her while he adjusted himself to this latest threat. Here, too, she had him. He had gone too far. Dead or alive, she was a menace to his safety.

Since he must take a chance, why not take a bigger one, why not follow the instigation of the little crouching devils in his brain? He leered down at her with what was meant to be an ingratiating smile.

"Sho! What's the use of we 'uns quarreling, Miss Beulah? I ain't got nothing against you. Old Dan he always liked you fine. I reckon you did n't know that, did you?"

Her quick glance was in time to catch his face napping. The keen eyes of the girl pounced on his and dragged from them a glimpse of the depraved soul of the ruffian. Silently and warily she watched him.

"I done had my little joke, my dear," he went on. "Now we 'll be heap good friends. Old Dan ain't such a bad sort. There's lots of folks worse than Dan. That's right. Now, what was that you said a while ago about giving me anything I wanted?"

"I said my father would pay you anything in reason." Her throat was parched, but her eyes were hard and bright. No lithe young panther of the forest could have been more alert than she.

"Leave yore dad out of it. He ain't here, and, anyway, I ain't having any truck with him. Just say the word, Miss Beulah, and I 'll git a pole and haul you up in a jiffy."

Beulah made a mistake. She should have waited till she was out of the pit before she faced the new issue. But her horror of the man was overpowering. She unscabbarded swiftly the revolver at her side and lifted it defiantly toward him.

"I 'll stay here."

Again he foamed into rage. The girl had stalemated him once more. "Then stay, you little wild cat. You 've had yore chance. I'm through with you." He bared his teeth in a snarling grin and turned his back on her.

Beulah heard him slouching away. Presently there came the sound of a furiously galloping horse. The drumming of the hoofbeats died in the distance.

During the rest of the day she saw no more of the man. It swept over her toward evening in a wave of despair that he had left her to her fate.