“I ’m damned if it ain’t that Mexican agin,” he exclaimed, angrily. “Now, you get out o’ yere; you hear me? I ’m blamed if I kin shoot at no female, but you got in one measly spyin’ job on this outfit, an’ I ’ll not put up with another if I have ter pitch ye out inter the canyon. So you git plum out o’ yere, an’ tell yer friend Farnham he better take more care o’ his females, or some of ’em are liable ter get hurt.”
There was the harsh crunch of a footstep in the darkness, another figure suddenly slid down the smooth surface of rock, dropping almost at the pony’s head. The animal shied with a quick leap, but a heavy hand held him captive.
“Y-you sh-sh-shut up, B-Bill,” and the huge form of Stutter Brown loomed up directly between them, and that menacing rifle. “I-I reckon as how I’ll t-t-take a h-hand in this yere g-g-game. Sh-she ain’t no s-spy fer Farnham, er I ’m a l-l-liar.” He touched her softly with his great hand, bending down to look into her face, half hidden beneath the ruffled black hair. “C-come, little g-g-girl, what’s up?”
She made no response, her lips faltering as though suddenly stricken dumb. Beth Norvell dropped down from the pony’s back, and stood with one hand resting on Mercedes’ shoulder.
“She only came to show me the way,” she explained bravely. “I-I have a most important message for Mr. Winston. Where is he?”
“Important, d-did you s-s-say?”
“Yes, its delivery means life or death—for Heaven’s sake, take me to him!”
For a single breathless moment Brown hesitated, his eyes on the girl’s upturned face, evidently questioning her real purpose.
“I c-can’t right n-now, Miss,” he finally acknowledged, gravely; “that’s s-straight; fer ye s-s-see, he ’s down the ‘I-I-Independence’ shaft.”
It was a daring ruse that had taken Ned Winston down the shaft of the “Independence” mine with the midnight shift. Not even the professional enthusiasm of a young engineer could serve to justify so vast a risk, but somehow this battle of right and wrong had become a personal struggle between himself and Farnham; he felt, without understanding clearly why, that the real stake involved was well worth the venture, and would prove in the end of infinitely more value to him than any settlement of the mere mining claims at issue. For several hours he had been below in the tunnel of the “Little Yankee,” measuring distances, and sampling the grade of ore. All the afternoon and much of the early night had been utilized in a careful exploration of the surface ledges; creeping in, under protection of the low-growing cedars, as closely as a vigilant rifle-guard would permit, to the great ore dump of the busy “Independence”; diligently studying their system of labor, and slowly crystallizing into shape his later plan of action.