Apart from the wranglers a pair stood in earnest conversation, hardly in keeping with the frivolity of the hour.
She was small, lovely, and winning in gypsy dress of red and black, relieved here and there with soft white ruffles. Upon her golden curls rested a dainty little padded cap, and strong boots protected the tender feet. From her gloved fingers swung a torch not yet lighted.
The youth beside her showed his hardy pioneer lineage in a well-knit frame and a countenance full of chivalry, and at present glowing with eloquent love for his fair companion.
Neither of the absorbed pair noticed the angry light in the cruel eyes of a man standing near the guide. He was fully thirty-five years of age, quite tall, and as a merry girl expressed it, brigandish-looking. But for the restless passions that marred his bearded face he might have been called handsome. He glared at Minnie Dare as a tiger might watch his prey, for she was indeed the destined prey of this fierce-looking man.
By what mysterious power Jason Hammond had won the gentle girl from her devoted father no one knew, but with haggard face and heart-wrung pain, Colonel Dare had bidden his one ewe lamb prepare for the sacrifice.
This long-planned excursion was to be the last of freedom for Minnie Dare.
Striding up to the unconscious lovers, the man said rudely,—
“Miss Dare, do you mean to hang about here all day? They are waiting for you.”
“I presume, sir, Miss Dare has the right to stay where she pleases,” retorted Eldon Brand, a quick, angry flash leaping to his eyes.
“Hardly,” returned the other superciliously, “at all events she knows better, whatever your view of the matter.”
With a look of appeal from her blue eyes that arrested the sharp rejoinder from the lips of the man she loved, the girl turned away, her face suddenly paling from fear.
“Here comes the pirate chief with his captive,” exclaimed a laughing girl.
“Hush, Cornelia; he may hear you—horrid man! He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t so rich.”
“Why, where is Eldon Brand?” said another.
“Over there, cutting a staff from the cane-brake,” replied the first speaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” here interposed the guide, striking a stage attitude, “if you want my services you must come right along. It is already too late for the long route; you will have to take the short one.”
“All right,” agreed the party, rallying their forces, “we’ll take the short one, then. Forward, march!”
Down, down they went in pairs along the circuitous stairway to the entrance, where the thick darkness might be felt. With lighted torches they turned from the sunshine and entered upon the pioneer wagon tracks imbedded in the soil for two miles. Hither the early settlers were wont to convey their salt barrels and other stores for safe keeping from the natives.