Billie struck a match and looked at his watch. It was five minutes past three. A faint gray was beginning to sift into the sky. He had been nearly seven hours in the Mal-Pais. Out in God’s country the world would soon be shaking sleep from its eyes. In this death zone there was neither waking nor sleeping. “Frozen hell,” Clanton had called it. Prince shuddered.
The flare of the match had showed him that he was standing close to the edge of a fissure. In the darkness he could not see to the bottom of it.
A faint breath of a whimper floated to him. He grew rigid, every nerve taut. He dared not let himself believe it could be real. Of course he was imagining sounds. Presently, no doubt, he would hear voices. In this devil’s caldron a man could not stay quite sane.
Again, as if from below his feet, was lifted a strangled, little sob.
“Lee!” he called huskily with what was left of his voice.
Something in the cavern moved. By means of outcropping spars of rock he lowered himself swiftly.
The darkness was Stygian. He struck another match.
From the gloom beyond the space lit by the small flame came the rustle of something stirring. The match burned out. He lit another and groped forward. His foot struck an impediment.
He looked down into the startled eyes and white face of Lee Snaith.
It had been a beautiful day of sunshine when Lee left Live-Oaks to ride to the Ninety-Four Ranch. Not a breath of wind stirred. The desert slept in a warm, golden bath. It was peaceful as old age.
But as the sun slipped past the meridian, gusts swept across the sands and whipped into the air inverted cones that whirled like vast tops in a wild race to nowhere. The air waves became more frequent and more furious. When Lee passed the buckboard driver, the whole desert seemed alive with stinging sand.
He called something to her that was lost in the wind. The girl waved at him a gauntleted hand. She had been out in dust-storms before and was not in the least alarmed. Across the lower part of her face she had tied a silk handkerchief to protect her mouth and nostrils from the sand.
The mail carrier had scarcely disappeared before the fury of the wind increased. It lashed the ground with heavy whips, raging and screaming in shrill, whistling frenzy, until the desert rose in terror and began to shift.
Lee bent her head to escape the sand that filled her eyes and nostrils and beat upon her cheeks so unmercifully. She thought perhaps the tempest would abate soon and she slipped from the saddle to crouch close to the body of the horse for protection. Instead of decreasing, the gale rose to a hurricane. It was as if the whole sand plain was in continuous, whirling motion.
The horse grew frightened and restless. It was a young three-year-old Jim Clanton had broken for her. Somehow—Lee did not know quite the way it happened—the bridle rein slipped from her fingers and the colt was gone.