BEN BLAIR THE STORY OF A PLAINSMAN
By WILL LILLIBRIDGE
Author of "Where the Trail Divides," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
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COPYRIGHT BY A. C. MCCLURG & CO. A. D. 1905
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London
All rights reserved
Published October 21, 1905 Second Edition October 28, 1905 Third Edition November 29, 1905 Fourth Edition December 9, 1905 Fifth Edition December 14, 1905 Sixth Edition February 28, 1907
* * * * *
To My Wife
* * * * *
I. IN RUDE BORDER-LAND 1 II. DESOLATION 9 III. THE BOX R RANCH 23 IV. BEN'S NEW HOME 37 V. THE EXOTICS 44 VI. THE SOIL AND THE SEED 53 VII. THE SANITY OF THE WILD 66 VIII. THE GLITTER OF THE UNKNOWN 74 IX. A RIFFLE OF PRAIRIE 83 X. THE DOMINANT ANIMAL 94 XI. LOVE'S AVOWAL 106 XII. A DEFERRED RECKONING 117 XIII. A SHOT IN THE DARK 134 XIV. THE INEXORABLE TRAIL 148 XV. IN THE GRIP OF THE LAW 164 XVI. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD 185 XVII. GLITTER AND TINSEL 193 XVIII. PAINTER AND PICTURE 204 XIX. A VISITOR FROM THE PLAINS 217 XX. CLUB CONFIDENCES 230 XXI. LOVE IN CONFLICT 242 XXII. TWO FRIENDS HAVE IT OUT 258 XXIII. THE BACK-FIRE 270 XXIV. THE UPPER AND THE NETHER MILLSTONES 287 XXV. OF WHAT AVAIL? 304 XXVI. LOVE'S SURRENDER 318
* * * * *
IN RUDE BORDER-LAND
Even in a community where unsavory reputations were the rule, Mick Kennedy's saloon was of evil repute. In a land new and wild, his establishment was the wildest, partook most of the unsubdued, unevolved character of its surroundings. There, as irresistibly as gravitation calls the falling apple, came from afar and near—mainly from afar—the malcontent, the restless, the reckless, seeking—instinctively gregarious—the crowd, the excitement of the green-covered table, the temporary oblivion following the gulping of fiery red liquor.
Great splendid animals were the men who gathered there; hairy, powerful, strong-voiced from combat with prairie wind and frontier distance; devoid of a superfluous ounce of flesh, their trousers, uniformly baggy at the knees, bearing mute testimony to the many hours spent in the saddle; the bare unprotected skin of their hands and faces speaking likewise of constant contact with sun and storm.
By the broad glow of daylight the place was anything but inviting. The heavy bar, made of cottonwood, had no more elegance than the rude sod shanty of the pioneer. The worn round cloth-topped tables, imported at extravagant cost from the East, were covered with splashes of grease and liquor; and the few fly-marked pictures on the walls were coarsely suggestive. Scattered among them haphazard, in one instance through a lithographic print, were round holes as large as a spike-head, through which, by closely applying the eye, one could view the world without. When the place was new, similar openings had been carefully refilled with a whittled stick of wood, but the practice had been discontinued; it was too much trouble, and also useless from the frequency with which new holes were made. Besides, although accepted with unconcern by habitues of the place, they were a source of never-ending interest to the "tenderfeet" who occasionally appeared from nowhere and disappeared whence they had come.
But at night all was different. Encircling the room with gleaming points of light were a multitude of blazing candles, home-made from tallow of prairie cattle. The irradiance, almost as strong as daylight, but radically different, softened all surrounding objects. The prairie dust, penetrating with the wind, spread itself everywhere. The reflection from cheap glassware, carefully polished, made it appear of costly make; the sawdust of the floor seemed a downy covering; the crude heavy chairs, an imitation of the artistic furniture of our fathers. Even the face of bartender Mick, with its stiff unshaven red beard and its single eye,—merciless as an electric headlight,—its broad flaming scar leading down from the blank socket of its mate, became less repulsive under the softened light.
With the coming of Fall frosts, the premonition of Winter, the frequenters of the place gathered earlier, remained later, emptied more of the showily labelled bottles behind the bar, and augmented when possible their well-established reputation for recklessness. About the soiled tables the fringe of bleared faces and keen hawk-like eyes was more closely drawn. The dull rattle of poker-chips lasted longer, frequently far into the night, and even after the tardy light of morning had come to the rescue of the sputtering stumps in the candlesticks.
On such a morning, early in November, daylight broadened upon a characteristic scene. Only one table was in use, and around it sat four men. One by one the other players had cashed out and left the game. One of them was snoring in a corner, his head resting upon the sawdust. Another leaned heavily upon the bar, a half-drained glass before him. Even the four at the table were not as upon the night before. The hands which held the greasy cards and toyed with the stacks of chips were steady, but the heads controlling them wavered uncertainly; and the hawk eyes were bloodshot.
A man with a full beard, roughly trimmed into the travesty of a Vandyke, was dealing. He tossed out the cards, carefully inclining their faces downward, and returned the remainder of the pack softly to the table.
"Pass, damn it!" growled the man at the left.
"Pass," came from the next man.
"Pass," echoed the last of the quartette.
Five blue chips dropped in a row upon the cloth.
"I open it."
The dealer took up the pack lovingly.
The man at the left, tall, gaunt, ill-kempt, flicked the pasteboards in his hand to the floor and ground them beneath his heavy boots.
"Give me five."
The point of the Vandyke beard was aimed straight past the speaker.
"Cards?" repeated the dealer.
"Five! Can't you hear?"
The man braced against the bar looked around with interest. In the mask of Mick Kennedy the single eye closed almost imperceptibly. Slowly the face of the dealer turned.
"I can hear you pretty well when you cash into the game. You already owe me forty blues, Blair."
The long figure stiffened, the face went pale.
"You—mean—you—" the tongue was very thick. "You cut me out?"
For a moment there was silence; then once more the beard pointed to the player next beyond.
"Cards?" for the third time.
Five chips ranged in a row beside their predecessors.
A hand, almost the hand of a gentleman, went instinctively to the gaunt throat of the ignored gambler and jerked at the close flannel shirt; then without a word the owner got unsteadily to his feet and followed an irregular trail toward the interested spectator at the bar.
"Have a drink with me, pard," said the gambler, as he regarded the immovable Mick. "Two whiskeys, there!"
Kennedy did not stir, and for five seconds Blair blinked his dulled eyes in wordless surprise; then his fist came down upon the cottonwood board with a mighty crash.
"Wake up there, Mick!" he roared. "I'm speaking to you! A couple of 'ryes' for the gentleman here and myself."
Another pause, momentary but effective.
"I heard you." The barkeeper spoke quietly but without the slightest change of expression, even of the eye. "I heard you, but I'm not dealing out drinks to deadbeats. Pay up, and I'll be glad to serve you."
Swift as thought Blair's hand went to his hip, and the rattle of poker-chips sympathetically ceased. A second, and a big revolver was trained fair at the dispenser of liquors.
"Curse you, Mick Kennedy!" muttered a choking voice, "when I order drinks I want drinks. Dig up there, and be lively!"
The man by the speaker's side, surprised out of his intoxication, edged away to a discreet distance; but even yet the Irishman made no move. Only the single headlight shifted in its socket until it looked unblinkingly into the blazing eyes of the gambler.
"Tom Blair," commanded an even voice, "Tom Blair, you white livered bully, put up that gun!"
Slowly, very slowly, the speaker turned,—all but the terrible Cyclopean eye,—and moved forward until his body leaned upon the bar, his face protruding over it.
"Put up that gun, I tell you!" A smile almost fiendish broke over the furrows of the rugged face. "You wouldn't dast shoot, unless perhaps it was a woman, you coward!"
For a fraction of a minute there was silence, while over the visage of the challenged there flashed, faded, recurred the expression we pay good dollars to watch playing upon the features of an accomplished actor; then the yellow streak beneath the bravado showed, and the menacing hand dropped to the holster at the hip. Once again Kennedy, who seldom made a mistake, had sized his man correctly.
"What do I owe you altogether, Mick?" asked a changed and subdued voice. "Make it as easy as you can."
Kennedy relaxed into his lounging position.
"Thirty-five dollars. We'll call it thirty. You've been setting them up to everybody here for a week on your face."
"Can't you give me just a little more credit, Mick?" An expression meant to be a smile formed upon the haggard face. "Just for old time's sake? You know I've always been a good customer of yours, Kennedy."
"Not a cent."
"But I've got to have liquor!" One hand, ill-kept, but long of fingers and refined of shape, steadied the speaker. "I can't get along without it!"
"Sell something, then, and pay up."
The man thought a moment and shook his head.
"I haven't anything to sell; you know that. It's the wrong time of the year." He paused, and the travesty of a smile reappeared. "Next Winter—"
"You've got a horse outside."
For an instant Blair's gaunt face darkened at the insult; he grew almost dignified; but the drink curse had too strong a grip upon him and the odor of whiskey was in the air.
"Yes, I've a good horse," he said slowly. "What'll you give for him?"
"He's a good horse, worth a hundred."
"I'm glad of that, but I'm not dealing in horses. I make the offer just to oblige you. Besides, as you said, it's an off season."
"You won't give me more?"
Blair looked impotently about the room, but his former companions had returned to their game. Filling in the silence, the dull clatter of chips mingled with the drunken snores of the man on the floor.
"Very well, give me forty," he said at last.
"You accept, do you?"
Blair waited a moment. "Aren't you going to give me what's coming?" he asked.
Slowly the single eye fixed him as before.
"I didn't know you had anything coming."
"Why, you just said forty dollars!"
There was no relenting in Kennedy's face.
"You owe that gentleman over there at the table for forty blues. I'll settle with him."
Instinctively, as before, Blair's thin hand went to his throat, clutching at the coarse flannel. He saw he was beaten.
"Well, give me a drink, anyway!"
Silently Mick took a big flask from the shelf and set it with a decanter upon the bar. Filling the glass, Blair drained it at a gulp, refilled and drained it—and then again.
"A little drop to take along with me," he whined.
Kennedy selected a pint bottle, filled it from the big flask, and silently proffered it over the board.
Blair took the extended favor, glanced once more about the room, and stumbled toward the exit. Mick busied himself wiping the soiled bar with a towel, if possible, even more filthy. At the threshold, his hand upon the knob, Blair paused, stiffened, grew livid in the face.
"May Satan blister your scoundrel souls, all of you!" he cursed.
Not a man within sound of his voice gave sign that he had heard, as the opened door returned to its casing with a crash.
Ten miles out on the prairies,—not lands plane as a table, as they are usually pictured, but rolling like the sea with waves of tremendous amplitude—stood a rough shack, called by courtesy a house. Like many a more pretentious domicile, it was of composite construction, although consisting of but one room. At the base was the native prairie sod, piled tier upon tier. Above this the superstructure, like the bar of Mick Kennedy's resort, was of warping cottonwood. Built out from this single room and forming a part of it was what the designer had called a woodshed; but as no tree the size of a man's wrist was within ten miles, or a railroad within fifty, the term was manifestly a misnomer. Wood in any form it had never contained; instead, it was filled with that providential fuel of the frontiersman, found superabundantly upon the ranges,—buffalo chips.
From the main room there was another and much smaller opening into the sod foundation, and below it,—a dog-kennel. Slightly apart from the shack stood a twin structure even less assuming, its walls and roof being wholly built of sod. It was likewise without partition, and was used as a barn. Hard by was a corral covering perhaps two acres, enclosed with a barbed-wire fence. These three excrescences upon the face of nature comprised the "improvements" of the "Big B Ranch."
Within the house the furnishings accorded with their surroundings. Two folding bunks, similar in conception to the upper berths of a Pullman car, were built end to end against the wall; when they were raised to give room, four supports dangled beneath like paralyzed arms. A home-made table, suggesting those scattered about country picnic grounds, a few cheap chairs, a row of chests and cupboards variously remodelled from a common foundation of dry-goods boxes, and a stove, ingeniously evolved out of the cylinder and head of a portable engine, comprised the furniture.
The morning sunlight which dimmed the candles of Mick Kennedy's saloon drifted through the single high-set window of the Big B Ranch-house, revealing there a very different scene. From beneath the quilts in one of the folding bunks appeared the faces of a woman and a little boy. At the opening of the dog-kennel the head of a mottled yellow-and-white mongrel dog projected into the room, the sensitive muzzle pointing directly at the occupied bunk. The eyes of woman, child, and beast were open and moved restlessly about.
"Mamma," and the small boy wriggled beneath the clothes, "Mamma, I'm hungry."
The white face of the woman turned away, more pallid than before. An unfamiliar observer would have been at a loss to guess the age of the owner. In that haggard, non-committal countenance there was nothing to indicate whether she was twenty-five or forty.
"It is early yet, son. Go to sleep."
The boy closed his eyes dutifully, and for perhaps five minutes there was silence; then the blue orbs opened wider than before.
"Mamma, I can't go to sleep. I'm hungry!"
"Never mind, Benjamin. The horses, the rabbits, the birds,—all get hungry sometimes." A hacking cough interrupted her words. "Snuggle close up to me, little son, and keep warm."
"But, mamma, I want something to eat. Won't you get it for me?"
"I can't, son."
He waited a moment. "Won't you let me help myself, then, mamma?"
The eyes of the mother moistened.
"Mamma," the child repeated, gently shaking his mother's shoulder, "won't you let me help myself?"
"There's nothing for you to eat, sonny, nothing at all."
The blue child-eyes widened; the serious little face puckered.
"Why ain't there anything to eat, mamma?"
"Because there isn't, bubby."
The reasoning was conclusive, and the child accepted it without further parley; but soon another interrogation took form in his active brain.
"It's cold, mamma," he announced. "Aren't you going to build a fire?"
Again the mother coughed, and a flush of red appeared upon her cheeks.
"No," she answered with a sigh.
"Why not, mamma?"
There was not the slightest trace of irritation in the answering voice, although it was clearly an effort to speak.
"I can't get up this morning, little one."
Mysteries were multiplying, but the small Benjamin was equal to the occasion. With a spring he was out of bed, and in another moment was stepping gingerly upon the cold bare floor.
"I'm going to build a fire for you, mamma," he announced.
The homely mongrel whined a welcome to the little lad's appearance, and with his tail beat a friendly tattoo upon the kennel floor; but the woman spoke no word. With impassive face she watched the shivering little figure as it hurried into its clothes, and then, with celerity born of experience, went about the making of a fire. Suddenly a hitherto unthought-of possibility flashed into the boy's mind, and leaving his work he came back to the bunk.
"Are you sick, mamma?" he asked.
Instantly the woman's face softened.
"Yes, laddie," she answered gently.
Carefully as a nurse, the small protector replaced the cover at his mother's back, where his exit had left a gap; then returned to his work.
"You must have it warm here," he said.
Not until the fire in the old cylinder makeshift was burning merrily did he return to his patient; then, standing straight before her, he looked down with an air of childish dignity that would have been comical had it been less pathetic.
"Are you very sick, mamma?" he said at last, hesitatingly.
"I am dying, little son." She spoke calmly and impersonally, without even a quickening of the breath. The thin hand, lying on the tattered cover, did not stir.
"Mamma!" the old-man face of the boy tightened, as, bending over the bed, he pressed his warm cheek against hers, now growing cold and white.
At the mouth of the kennel two bright eyes were watching curiously. Their owner wriggled the tip of his muzzle inquiringly, but the action brought no response. Then the muzzle went into the air, and a whine, long-drawn and insistent, broke the silence.
The boy rose. There was not a trace of moisture in his eyes, but the uncannily aged face seemed older than before. He went over to a peg where his clothes were hanging and took down the frayed garment that answered as an overcoat. From the bunk there came another cough, quickly muffled; but he did not turn. Cap followed coat, mittens cap; then, suddenly remembering, he turned to the stove and scattered fresh chips upon the glowing embers.
"Good-bye, mamma," said the boy.
The mother had been watching him, although she gave no sign. "Where are you going, sonny?" she asked.
"To town, mamma. Someone ought to know you're sick."
There was a moment's pause, wherein the mongrel whined impatiently.
"Aren't you going to kiss me first, Benjamin?"
The little lad retraced his steps, until, bending over, his lips touched those of his mother. As he did so, the hand which had lain upon the coverlet shifted to his arm detainingly.
"How were you thinking of going, son?"
A look of surprise crept into the boy's blue eyes. A question like this, with its obvious answer, was unusual from his matter-of-fact mother. He glanced at her gravely.
"I'm going afoot, mamma."
"It's ten miles to town, Benjamin."
"But you and I walked it once together. Don't you remember?"
An expression the lad did not understand flashed over the white face of Jennie Blair. Well she remembered that other occasion, one of many like the present, when she and the little lad had gone in company to the settlement of which Mick Kennedy's place was a part, in search of someone whom after ten hours' delay they had succeeded in bringing home,—the remnant and vestige of what was once a man.
"Yes, I know we did, Bennie."
The boy waited a moment longer, then straightened himself.
"I think I'd better be starting now."
But instead of loosening its hold, the hand upon the boy's shoulder tightened. The eyes of the two met.
"You're not going, sonny. I'm glad you thought of it, but I can't let you go."
Again there was silence for so long that the waiting dog, impatient of the delay, whined in soft protest.
"Why not, mamma?"
"Because, Benjamin, it's too late now. Besides, there wouldn't be a person there who would come out to help me."
The boy's look of perplexity returned.
"Not if they knew you were very sick, mamma?"
"Not if they knew I was dying, my son."
The boy took off hat, mittens, and coat, and returned them to their places. Never in his short life had he questioned a statement of his mother's, and such heresy did not occur to him now. Coming back to the bunk, he laid his cheek caressingly beside hers.
"Is there anything I can do for you, mamma?" he whispered.
"Nothing but what you are doing now, laddie."
Tired of standing, the mongrel dropped within his tracks flat upon his belly, and, his head resting upon his fore-paws, lay watching intently.
* * * * *
When the door of Mick Kennedy's saloon closed with an emphasis that shook the very walls, it shut out a being more ferocious, more evil, than any beast of the jungle. For the time, Blair's alcohol-saturated brain evolved but one chain of thought, was capable of but one emotion—hate. Every object in the universe, from its Creator to himself, fell under the ban. The language of hate is curses; and as he moved out over the prairie there dripped from his lips continuously, monotonously, a trickling, blighting stream of malediction. Swaying, stumbling, unconscious of his physical motions, instinct kept him upon the trail; a Providence, sometimes kindest to those least worthy, preserved him from injury.
Half way out he met a solitary Indian astride a faded-looking mustang, and the current of his wrath was temporarily diverted by a surly "How!" Even this measure of friendliness was regretted when the big revolver came out of the rancher's holster like a flash, and, head low on the neck of the mustang, heels in the little beast's ribs, the aborigine retreated with a yell, amid a shower of ill-aimed bullets. Long after the figure on the pony had passed out of range, Blair stood pulling at the trigger of the empty repeater and cursing louder than before because it would not "pop."
Two hours later, when it was past noon, an uncertain hand lifted the wooden latch of the Big B Ranch-house door, and, heralded by an inrush of cold outside air, Tom Blair, master and dictator, entered his domain. The passage of time, the physical exercise, and the prairie air, had somewhat cleared his brain. Just within the room, he paused and looked about him with surprise. With premonition of impending trouble, the mongrel bristled the yellow hair of his neck, and, retreating to the mouth of his kennel, stood guard; but otherwise the scene was to a detail as it had been in the morning. The woman lay passive within the bunk. The child by her side, holding her hand, did not turn. The very atmosphere of the place tingled with an ominous quiet,—a silence such as one who has lived through a cyclone connects instinctively with a whirling oncoming black funnel.
The new-comer was first to make a move. Walking over to the centre of the room, he stopped and looked upon his subjects.
"Well, of all the infernally lazy people I ever saw!" he commented, "you beat them, Jennie! Get up and cook something to eat; it's way after noon, and I'm hungry."
The woman said nothing, but the boy slid to his feet, facing the intruder.
"Mamma's sick and can't get up," he explained as impersonally as to a stranger. "Besides, there isn't anything to cook. She said so."
The man's brow contracted into a frown.
"Speak when you're spoken to, young upstart!" he snapped. "Out with you, Jennie! I don't want to be monkeyed with to-day!"
He hung up his coat and cap, and loosened his belt a hole; but no one else in the room moved.
"Didn't you hear me?" he asked, looking warningly toward the bunk.
"Yes," she replied.
Autocrat under his own roof, the man paused in surprise. Never before had a command here been disobeyed. He could scarcely believe his own senses.
"You know what to do, then," he said sharply.
For the first time a touch of color came into the woman's cheeks, and catching the man's eyes she looked into them unfalteringly.
"Since when did I become your slave, Tom Blair?" she asked slowly.
The words were a challenge, the tone was that of some wild thing, wounded, cornered, staring death in the face, but defiant to the end. "Since when did you become my owner, body and soul?"
Any sportsman, any being with a fragment of admiration for even animal courage, would have held aloof then. It remained for this man, bred amid high civilization, who had spent years within college halls, to strike the prostrate. As in the frontier saloon, so now his hand went involuntarily to his throat, clutched at the binding collar until the button flew; then, as before, his face went white.
"Since when!" he blazed, "since when! I admire your nerve to ask that question of me! Since six years ago, when you first began living with me. Since the day when you and the boy,—and not a preacher within a hundred miles—" Words, a flood of words, were upon his lips; but suddenly he stopped. Despite the alcohol still in his brain, despite the effort he made to continue, the gaze of the woman compelled silence.
"You dare recall that memory, Tom Blair?" The words came more slowly than before, and with an intensity that burned them into the hearer's memory. "You dare, knowing what I gave up for your sake!" The eyes blazed afresh, the dark head was raised on the pillows. "You know that my son stands listening, and yet you dare throw my coming to you in my face?"
White to the lips went the scarred visage of the man, but the madness was upon him.
"I dare?" To his own ears the voice sounded unnatural. "I dare? To be sure I dare! You came to me of your own free-will. You were not a child!" His voice rose and the flush returned to his face. "You knew the price and accepted it deliberately,—deliberately, I say!"
Without a sound, the figure in the rough bunk quivered and stiffened; the hand upon the coverlet was clenched until the nails grew white, then it relaxed. Slowly, very slowly, the eyelids closed as though in sleep.
Impassive but intent listener, an instinct now sent the boy Benjamin back to his post.
"Mamma," he said gently. "Mamma!"
There was no answer, nor even a responsive pressure of the hand.
"Mamma!" he repeated more loudly. "Mamma! Mamma!"
Still no answer, only the limp passivity. Then suddenly, although never before in his short life had the little lad looked upon death, he recognized it now. His mamma, his playmate, his teacher, was like this; she would not speak to him, would not answer him; she would never speak to him or smile upon him again! Like a thunderclap came the realization of this. Then another thought swiftly followed. This man,—one who had said things that hurt her, that brought the red spots to her cheeks,—this man was to blame. Not in the least did he understand the meaning of what he had just heard. No human being had suggested to him that Blair was the cause of his mother's death; but as surely as he would remember their words as long as he lived, so surely did he recognize the man's guilt. Suddenly, as powder responds to the spark, there surged through his tiny body a terrible animal hate for this man, and, scarcely realizing the action, he rushed at him.
"She's dead and you killed her!" he screamed. "Mamma's dead, dead!" and the little doubled fists struck at the man's legs again and again.
Oblivious to the onslaught, Tom Blair strode over to the bunk.
"Jennie," he said, not unkindly, "Jennie, what's the matter?"
Again there was no response, and a shade of awe crept into the man's voice.
"Jennie! Jennie! Answer me!" A hand fell upon the woman's shoulder and shook it, first gently, then roughly. "Answer me, I say!"
With the motion, the head of the dead shifted upon the pillow and turned toward the man, and involuntarily he loosened his grasp. He had not eaten for twenty-four hours, and in sudden weakness he made his way to one of the rough chairs, and sat down, his face buried in his hands.
Behind him the boy Benjamin, his sudden hot passion over, stood watching intently,—his face almost uncanny in its lack of childishness.
For a time there was absolute silence, the hush of a death-chamber; then of a sudden the boy was conscious that the man was looking at him in a way he had never looked before. Deep down below our consciousness, far beneath the veneer of civilization, there is an instinct, relic of the vigilant savage days, that warns us of personal danger. By this instinct the lad now interpreted the other's gaze, and knew that it meant ill for him. For some reason which he could not understand, this man, this big animal, was his mortal enemy; and, in the manner of smaller animals, he began to consider an avenue of escape.
"Ben," spoke the man, "come here!"
Tom Blair was sober now, and wore a look of determination upon his face that few had ever seen there before; but to his surprise the boy did not respond. He waited a moment, and then said sharply:
"Ben, I'm speaking to you. Come here at once!"
For answer there was a tightening of the lad's blue eyes and an added watchfulness in the incongruously long childish figure; but that was all.
Another lagging minute passed, wherein the two regarded each other steadily. The man's eyes dropped first.
"You little devil!" he muttered, and the passion began showing in his voice. "I believe you knew what I was thinking all the time! Anyway, you'll know now. You said awhile ago that I was to blame for your mother being—as she is. You're liable to say that again." A horror greater than sudden passion was in the deliberate explanation and in the slow way he rose to his feet. "I'm going to fix you so you can't say it again, you old-man imp!"
Then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of running away, the boy took a step forward, and the man paused, scarcely believing his eyes. Another step forward, and yet another, came the diminutive figure, until almost within the aggressor's reach; then suddenly, quick as a cat, it veered, dropped upon all fours to the floor, and head first, scrambling like a rabbit, disappeared into the open mouth of the dog-kennel.
Too late the man saw the trick, and curses came to his lips,—curses fit for a fiend, fit for the irresponsible being he was. He himself had built that kennel. It extended in a curve eight feet into the solid sod foundation, and to get at the spot where the boy now lay he would have to tear down the house itself. The temper which had made the man what he now was, a drunkard and fugitive in a frontier country, took possession of him wholly, and with it came a madman's cunning; for at a sudden thought he stopped, and the cursing tongue was silent. Five minutes later he left the place, closing the door carefully behind him; but before that time a red jet of flame, like the ravenous tongue of a famished beast, was lapping at a hastily assembled pile of tinder-dry furniture in one corner of the shanty.
THE BOX R RANCH
Mr. Rankin moved back from a well-discussed table, and, the room being conveniently small, tilted his chair back against the wall. The protesting creak of the ill-glued joints under the strain of his ponderous figure was a signal for all the diners, and five other men likewise drew away from around the board. Rankin extracted a match and a stout jack-knife from the miscellaneous collection of useful articles in his capacious pocket, carefully whittled the bit of wood to a point, and picked his teeth deliberately. The five "hands," sun-browned, unshaven, dissimilar in face as in dress, waited in expectation; but the housekeeper, a shapeless, stolid-looking woman, wife of the foreman, Graham, went methodically about the work of clearing the table. Rankin watched her a moment indifferently; then without turning his head, his eyes shifted in their narrow slits of sockets until they rested upon one of the cowboys.
"What time was it you saw that smoke, Grannis?" he asked.
The man addressed paused in the operation of rolling a cigarette.
"'Bout an hour ago, I should say. I was just thinking of coming in to dinner."
The lids met over Rankin's eyes, then the narrow slit opened.
"It was in the no'thwest you say, and seemed to be quite a way off?"
"Yes; I couldn't make out any fire, only the smoke, and that didn't last long. I thought at first maybe it was a prairie fire, and started to see; but it was getting thinner before I'd gone a mile, so I turned round and by the time I got back to the corral there wasn't nothing at all to see."
Two of the other hands solemnly exchanged a wink.
"Think you must have eaten too many of Ma Graham's pancakes this morning, and had a blur over your eyes," commented one, slyly. "Prairie fires don't stop that sudden when the grass is like it is now."
The portly housewife paused in her work to cast a look of scorn upon the speaker, but Grannis rushed into the breach.
"Don't you believe it. There was a fire all right. Somebody stopped it, or it stopped itself, that's all."
Tilting his chair forward with an effort, Rankin got to his feet, and, as usual, his action brought the discussion to an end. The woman returned to her work; the men put on hats and coats preparatory to going out of doors. Only the proprietor stood passive a moment absently drawing down his vest over his portly figure.
"Graham," he said at last, "hitch the mustangs to the light wagon."
The man addressed paused.
"Throw in a couple of extra blankets."
Out of doors the men took up the conversation where they had left off.
"You better begin to hope the old man finds something that's been afire up there, Grannis," said the joker of the house. "If he don't, you've cooked your goose proper."
Grannis was a new-comer, and looked his surprise.
"Why so?" he asked.
"You'll find out why," retorted the other. "Fire here's 'most as uncommon as rain, and the boss don't like them smoky jokes."
"But I saw smoke, I tell you," reiterated Grannis, defensively; "smoke, dead sure!"
"All right, if you're certain sure."
"Marcom knows what he's talking about, Grannis," said Graham. "He tried to ginger things up a bit when he was new here, like you are; found a litter of coyotes one September—thought they were timber wolves, I guess, and braced up with his story to the old man." The speaker paused with a reflective grin.
"Well, what happened?" asked Grannis.
"What happened? The boss sent me dusting about forty miles to get some hounds. Nearly spoiled a good team to get back inside sixteen hours, and—they found out Bill here in the next thirty minutes, that was all!" Once more the story ended in a grin.
"What'd Rankin say?" asked Grannis, with interest.
"How about it, Bill?" suggested Graham.
The big cowboy looked a trifle foolish.
"Oh, he didn't say much; 'tain't his way. He just remarked, sort of off-hand, that as far as I was concerned the next year had only about four pay-months in it. That was all."
* * * * *
Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing at once. This was the motto of the master of the Box R Ranch. In ten minutes' time Rankin's big shapeless figure, seated in the old buckboard, was moving northwest at the steady jog-trot typical of prairie travel, and which as the hours pass by annihilates distance surprisingly. Simply a fat, an abnormally fat, man, the casual observer would have said. It remained for those who came in actual contact with him to learn the force beneath the forbidding exterior,—the relentless bull-dog energy that had made him dictator of the great ranch, and kept subordinate the restless, roving, dissolute men-of-fortune he employed,—the deliberate and impartial judgment which had made his word as near law as it was possible for any mandate to be among the motley inhabitants within a radius of fifty miles. Had Rankin chosen he could have attained honor, position, power in his native Eastern home. No barrier built of convention or of conservatism could have withstood him. Society reserves her prizes largely for the man of initiative; and, uncomely block as he was, Rankin was of the true type. But for some reason, a reason known to none of his associates, he had chosen to come to the West. Some consideration or other had caused him to stop at his present abode, and had made him apparently a fixture in the midst of this unconquered country.
There was no road in the direction Rankin was travelling,—only the unbroken prairie sod, eaten close by the herds that grazed its every foot. Even under the direct sunlight the air was sharp. The regular breath of the mustangs shot out like puffs of steam from the exhaust of an engine, and the moisture frosted about their flanks and nostrils. But the big man on the seat did not notice temperature. He had produced a pipe from the depths beneath the wagon seat, and tobacco from a jar cunningly fitted into one corner of the box, both without moving from his place, the seat being hinged and divided in the centre to facilitate the operation. More a home to him than the ranch-house itself was that battered buckboard. Here, on an average, he spent eight hours out of the twenty-four, and that seat-box was a veritable storehouse of articles used in his daily life. As the jog-trot measured off the miles he replenished the pipe again and again, leaving behind him the odor of strong tobacco.
Not until he was within a mile of the "Big B" property, and a rise in the monotonous roll of the land brought him in range of vision, did Rankin show that he felt more than ordinary interest in his expedition; then, shading his eyes, he looked steadily ahead. The sod barn stood in its usual place; the corral, with its posts set close together, stretched by its side; but where the house had stood there could not be distinguished even a mound. The hand on the reins tightened meaningly, and in sympathy the mustangs moved ahead at a swifter pace, leaving behind a trail of tobacco-smoke denser than before.
* * * * *
When the little Benjamin Blair, fugitive, had literally taken to the earth, it was with definite knowledge of the territory he was entering. He had often explored its depths with childish curiosity, to the distress of his mother and the disgust of the rightful owner, the mongrel dog. Retreating to the farther end of the cave, the instinct of self-preservation set hands and feet to work like the claws of a gopher, filling with loose dirt the narrow passage through which he had entered. Panting and perspiring with the effort, choked with the dust he raised, all but suffocated, he dug until his strength gave out; then, curling up in his narrow quarters, he lay listening. At first he heard nothing, not even a sound from the dog; and he wondered at the fact. He could not believe that Tom Blair would leave him in peace, and he breathlessly awaited the first tap of an instrument against his retreat. A minute passed, lengthened to five—to ten—and with the quick impatience of childhood he started to learn the reason of the delay. His active little body revolved in its nest. In the darkness a wiry arm scratched at the recently erected barricade. A head with a tousled mass of hair poked its way into the opening, crowded forward a foot—two feet, then stopped, the whole body quivering. He had passed the curve, and of a sudden it was as though he had opened the door of a furnace and gazed inside. Instead of the familiar room, a great sheet of flame walled him in. Instead of silence, a roar as of a hurricane was in his ears. Never in his life had he seen a great fire, but instantly he understood. Instantly the instinctive animal terror of fire gripped him; he retreated to the very depths of the kennel, and burying his small head in his arms lay still. But not even then, child though he was, did he utter a cry. The endurance which had made Jennie Blair stare death impassively in the face was part and parcel of his nature.
For the space of perhaps a minute Ben lay motionless. Louder than before came to his ears the roar of the fire. Occasionally a hot tongue of flame intruded mockingly into the mouth of his retreat. The confined air about him grew close, narcotic. He expected to die, and with the premonition of death an abnormal activity came to the child-brain. Whatever knowledge he possessed of death was connected with his mother. It was she who had given him his vague impression of another life. She herself, as she lay silent and unresponsive, had been the first concrete example of it. Inevitably thought of her came to him now,—practical, material thought, crowding from his brain the blind terror that had been its predecessor. Where was his mother now? He pictured again the furnace into which he had gazed from the mouth of the kennel. Though perhaps she would not feel it, she would be burned—burned to a crisp—destroyed like the fuel he had tossed into the makeshift stove! Instinctively he felt the sacrilege, and the desire to do something to prevent it. Something—yes, but what? He was himself helpless; he must seek outside aid—but where? Suddenly there occurred to the child-mind a suggestion applicable to his difficulty, an adequate solution, for it involved everything he had learned to trust in life. He remembered a Being more powerful than man, more powerful than fire or cold,—a Being whom his mother had called God. Believing in Him, it was necessary only to ask for whatever one wished. For himself, even to save his life, he would not call upon this Being; but for his mamma! In childish faith he folded his hands and closed his eyes in the darkness.
"God," he prayed, "please put out this fire and save my mamma from burning!"
The small hands loosened and the lips parted to hear the first diminution in the growl of the flame. But it roared on.
"God!" The hands were clasped again, the voice vibrant with pleading. "God, please put out the fire! Please put it out!"
Silence again within, but without only the steady roaring crackle. Could it be possible the petition had not been heard? The childish hands met more tightly than before. The small body fairly writhed.
"God! God!" he implored for the third time. "Listen to me, please! Save my mamma, my mamma!"
For a moment the little figure lay still. Surely there would be an answer now. His mamma had said there would be, and whatever his mamma had told him had always come true. The air about him was so close he could scarcely breathe; but he did not notice it. Reversing head and feet, he started out of the kennel. It was certainly time to leave. The roar he had heard must have been of the wind. Assuredly God had acted before this. Head first, gasping, he moved on, reached the curve, and looked out.
Indignation took possession of the little figure. The fingers clinched until the nails bit deep into the soft palms. The whole body trembled in impotent anger and outraged self-respect. Upon the face of the small man was suddenly written the implacable defiance which one sees in carnivora when wounded and cornered—intensified as an expression can only be intensified upon a human face—as, almost unconsciously, he returned to the hollow he had left, and fairly thrust his tousled head into the kindly earth.
How long he remained there he did not know. The stifling atmosphere of the place gradually overcame him. Anger, wonder, the multitude of thoughts crowding his child-brain, slowly faded away; consciousness lapsed, and he slept.
When he awoke it was with a start and a vague wonder as to his whereabouts. Then memory returned, and he listened intently. Not a sound could he distinguish save his own breathing, as he slowly made his way to the mouth of the kennel. Before him was the opposite sod wall of the house standing as high as his head; above that, the blue of the sky; upon what had been the earthen floor, a strewing of ashes; over all, calm, glorious, the slanting rays of the low afternoon sun. A moment the boy lay gazing out; then he crawled to his feet, shaking off the dirt as a dog does. One glance about, and the blue eyes halted. A moisture came into them, gathered into drops, and then, breaking over the barrier of the long lashes, tears flowed through the accumulated grime, down the thin cheeks, leaving a clean pathway behind. That was all, for an instant; then a look—terrible in a mature person and doubly so in a child—came over the long face,—an expression partaking of both hate and vengeance. It mirrored an emotion that in a nature such as that of Benjamin Blair would never be forgotten. Some day, for some one, there would be a moment of reckoning; for the child was looking at the charred, unrecognizable corpse of his mother.
* * * * *
A half-hour later, Rankin, steaming into the yard of the Big B Ranch, came upon a scene that savored much of a play. It was so dramatic that the big man paused in contemplation of it. He saw there the sod and ashes of what had once been a home. The place must have burned like tinder, for now, but a few hours from the time when Grannis had first given the alarm, not an atom of smoke ascended. At one end of the quadrangular space enclosed by the walls stood the makeshift stove, discolored with the heat, as was the length of pipe by its side. Near by was a heap of warped iron and tin cooking utensils. At one side, covered by an old gunny-sack and a boy's tattered coat, was another object the form of which the observer could not distinguish.
In the middle of the plat, standing a few inches below the surface, was a small boy, and in his hands a very large spade. He wore a man's discarded shirt, with sleeves rolled up at the wrist, and neck-band pinned tight at one side. Obviously, he had been digging, for a small pile of fresh dirt was heaped at his right. Now, however, he was motionless, the blue eyes beneath the long lashes observing the new-comer inquiringly. That was all, save that to the picture was added the background of the unbroken silence of the prairie.
The man was the first to break the spell. He got out of the wagon clumsily, walked around the wall, and entered the quadrangle by what had been the door.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Digging," replied the boy, resuming his work.
The boy lifted out a double handful of dirt upon the big spade.
The man glanced about again.
"For some pet?"
The boy shook his head.
"No—sir," the latter word coming as an after-thought. His mother had taught him that title of respect.
Rankin changed the line of interrogation.
"Where's Tom Blair, young man?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Your mother, then, where is she?"
"My mother is dead."
The child's blue eyes did not falter.
"I am digging her grave, sir."
For a time Rankin did not speak or stir. Amid the stubbly beard the great jaws closed, until it seemed the pipe-stem must be broken. His eyes narrowed, as when, before starting, he had questioned the cowboy Grannis; then of a sudden he rose and laid a detaining hand upon the worker's shoulder. He understood at last.
"Stop a minute, son," he said. "I want to talk with you."
The lad looked up.
"How did it happen—the fire and your mother's death?"
No answer, only the same strangely scrutinizing look.
Rankin repeated the question a bit curtly.
Ben Blair calmly removed the man's hand from his shoulder and looked him fairly in the eyes.
"Why do you wish to know, sir?" he asked.
The big man made no answer. Why did he wish to know? What answer could he give? He paced back and forth across the narrow confines of the four sod walls. Once he paused, gazing at the little lad questioningly, not as one looks at a child but as man faces man; then, tramp, tramp, he paced on again. At last, as suddenly as before, he halted, and glanced sidewise at the uncompleted grave.
"You're quite sure you want to bury your mother here?" he asked.
The lad nodded silently.
Again the nod.
"Yes, I heard her say once she wished it so."
Without comment, Rankin removed his coat and took the spade from the boy's hand.
"I'll help you, then."
For a half-hour he worked steadily, descending lower and lower into the dry earth; then, pausing, he wiped the perspiration from his face.
"Are you cold, son?" he asked directly.
"Not very, sir." But the lad's teeth were chattering.
"A bit, though?"
"Yes, sir," simply.
"All right, you'll find some blankets out in the wagon, Ben. You'd better go out and get one and put it around you."
The boy started to obey. "Thank you, sir," he said.
Rankin returned to his work. In the west the sun dropped slowly beneath the horizon, leaving a wonderful golden light behind. The waiting horses, too well trained to move from their places, shifted uneasily amid much creaking of harness. Within the grave the digger's head sunk lower and lower, while the mound by the side grew higher and higher. The cold increased. Across the prairie, a multitude of black specks advanced, grew large, whizzed overhead, then retreated, their wings cutting the keen air, and silence returned.
Darkness was falling when at last Rankin clambered out to the surface.
"Another blanket, Ben, please."
Without a glance beneath, he wrapped the object under the old gunny-sack round and round with the rough wool winding-sheet, and, carrying it to the edge of the grave, himself descended clumsily and placed it gently at his feet. The pit was deep, and in getting out he slipped back twice; but he said nothing. Outside, he paused a moment, looking at the boy gravely.
"Anything you wish to say, Benjamin?"
The lad returned the gaze with equal gravity.
"I don't know of anything, sir."
The man paused a moment longer.
"Nor I, Ben," he said gently.
Again the spade resumed its work; and the impassive earth returned dully to its former resting-place. Dusk came on, but Rankin did not look about him until the mound was neatly rounded; then he turned to where he had left the little boy so bravely erect. But the small figure was not standing now; instead, it was prone on the ground amid the dust and ashes.
"Ben!" said Rankin, gently. "Ben!"
"Ben!" he repeated.
For a moment a small thin face appeared above the dishevelled figure, and a great sob shook the little frame. Then the head disappeared again.
"I can't help it, sir," wailed a muffled voice. "She was my mamma!"
BEN'S NEW HOME
Supper was over at the Box R Ranch. From the tiny lean-to the muffled rattle of heavy table-ware proclaimed the fact that Ma Graham was putting things in readiness for breakfast. Beside the sheet-iron heater in the front room, her husband, carefully swaddled in a big checked apron with the strings tied in a bow under his left ear, was busily engaged in dressing the half-dozen prairie chickens he had trapped that day. As fast as he removed the feathers he thrust them into the stove, and the pungent odor mingled with the suggestive tang of the bacon that had been the foundation of the past supper, and with the odor of cigarettes with which the other four men were permeating the place.
Graham critically held up to the light the bird upon which he had just been operating, removed a few scattered feathers, and, with practised hand, attacked its successor.
"If I were doing this job for myself," he commented, "I'd skin the beasts. Life is too blamed short to waste it in pulling out feathers!"
Grannis, the new-comer from no one knew where, smiled.
"It would look to me that you were doing it," he remarked. "I'd like to ask for information, who is if you ain't?"
The clatter of dishes suddenly ceased, and Graham's labor stopped in sympathy.
"My boy," he asked in reply, "were you ever married?"
Beneath its coat of tan, Grannis's face flushed; but he did not answer.
A second passed; then the plucking of feathers was continued.
"I reckon you've never been, though," Graham went on, "else you'd never ask that question."
During the remainder of the evening, Grannis sought no further information; and to Ma Graham's narrow life a new interest was added.
Ordinarily the cowboys went to their bunks in an adjoining shed almost directly after supper, but this evening, without giving a reason, they lingered. The housekeeper finished her work, and, coming into the main room, took a chair and sat down, her hands folded in her lap. The grouse dressed, Graham ranged them in a row upon the lean-to table, removed the apron, and lit his pipe in silence. The cowboys rolled fresh cigarettes and puffed at them steadily, the four stumps close together glowing in the dimness of the room. As everywhere upon the prairie, the quiet was almost a thing to feel.
At last, when the silence had become oppressive, the foreman took the pipe from his mouth and blew a short puff of smoke.
"Seems like the boss ought to've got back before this," he said with a sidelong glance at his wife.
Ma Graham nodded corroboration.
"Yes; must have found something wrong, I guess." She refolded her hands, and once more relapsed into silence.
It was the breaking of the ice, however.
"Where d'ye suppose the trouble could have been, Graham?" It was another late-comer, Bud Buck, young and narrow of hips, who spoke.
"At Blair's," was the answer. "The Big B is the closest."
"Blair?" The questioner puffed at his cigarette thoughtfully. "Guess I never heard of him."
"Must be a stranger in these parts, then," said Marcom. "Most everybody knows Tom Blair." He paused to give an all-including glance. "At least well enough to get a slice of his dough," he finished with a sarcastic laugh.
"Does he handle the pasteboards?" asked Buck, with interest.
"Tries to," contemptuously.
The curiosity of the youthful Bud was now thoroughly aroused.
"What kind of a fellow is he, anyway?" he went on. "Does he go it alone up at his ranch?"
At the last question Bill Marcom, discreetly silent, shifted his eyes in the direction of the foreman, and, following them, Bud surprised a covert glance between Graham and his wife. It was the latter who finally answered.
Buck was not without intuition, and he shifted to safer ground.
"Got much of a herd, has he?"
Marcom rolled a fresh cigarette skilfully, and drew the string of the tobacco pouch taut with his teeth.
"He did have, one time, but I don't believe he's got many left now. There's been a bunch lost there every storm I can remember. He don't keep any punchers to look after 'em, and he's never on hand himself. The woman and the kid," with a peculiar glance at the stout housekeeper, "saved 'em part of the time, but mostly they just drifted." The speaker blew a great cloud of smoke, and the veins at his temples swelled. "It's a shame, the way he neglects his stock and lets 'em starve and freeze!"
The blood coursed hot in the veins of Bud Buck.
"Why don't somebody step in?"
There was a meaning silence, broken at last by Graham.
"We would've—with a rope—if it hadn't been for the boss. He tried to help the fellow; went over there lots of times himself—weather colder than the devil, too, and with the wind and sleet so bad you couldn't see the team ahead of you—until one time last Winter Blair came home full, and caught him there." The narrative paused, and the black pipe puffed reminiscently. "The boss never said much, but I guess they must have had quite a session. Anyway, Rankin never went again, and from the way he looked when he got back here, half froze, and the mustangs beat out, I reckon Blair never knew how close he come to a necktie party that day."
Again silence fell, and remained unbroken until Graham suddenly sprang to his feet, and with "That's him now! I could tell that old buckboard if I was in my grave!" hurried on coat and hat and disappeared into the night. A minute more and the door through which he had passed opened slowly, and the figure of a small boy, wrapped like an Indian in a big blanket, stepped timidly inside and stood blinking in the light.
In anticipation of a very different arrival the housekeeper had risen to her feet, and now in surprise, arms akimbo, she stood looking curiously at the stranger. In this land at this time the young of every other animal native thereto was common, but a child, a white child, was a novelty indeed. Many a cow-puncher, bachelor among bachelors, could testify that it had been years since he had seen the like. But Ma Graham was not a bachelor, and in her the maternal instinct, though repressed, was strong. It was barely an instant before she was at the little lad's side, unwinding the blanket with deft hands.
"Who be you, anyway, and where'd you come from?" she exclaimed.
The child observed her gravely.
"Benjamin Blair's my name. I came with the man."
The husk was off the lad ere this, and the woman was rubbing his small hands vigorously.
"Cold, ain't you? Come right over to the fire!" herself leading the way. "And hungry—I'll bet you're hungrier than a wolf!"
The lad nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
The woman straightened up and looked down at her charge.
"Of course you are. All little boys are hungry." She cast a challenging glance around the group of interested spectators.
"Fix the fire, one of you, while I get something hot for the kid," she said, and ambled toward the lean-to.
If the men thought to have their curiosity concerning the youngster satisfied by word of mouth, however, they were doomed to be disappointed; for when Rankin himself entered it was as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He hung up his coat methodically, and, with the boy by his side, partook of the hastily prepared meal impassively, as was his wont. It could not have escaped him that the small Benjamin ate and ate until it seemed marvellous that one stomach could accommodate so much food; but he made no comment, and when at last the boy succumbed to a final plateful, he tilted back against the wall for his last smoke for the day. This was the usual signal of dismissal, and the hands put on their hats and filed silently out.
Without more words the foreman and his wife prepared for the night. The dishes were cleared away and piled in the lean-to. From either end of the room bunks, broad as beds, were let down from the wall, and the blankets that formed their linings were carefully smoothed out. Along the pole extending across the middle of the room, another set was drawn, dividing the room in two. Then the two disappeared with a simple "Good-night."
Rankin and the boy sat alone looking at each other. From across the blanket partition there came the muffled sound of movement, the impact of Graham's heavy boots, as they dropped to the floor, and then silence.
"Better go to bed, Ben," suggested Rankin, with a nod toward the bunk.
The boy at once went through the process of disrobing, and, crawling in between the blankets, pulled them up about his chin. But the blue eyes did not close. Instead, they rested steadily upon the man's face. Rankin returned the look, and then the stubby pipe left his mouth.
"What is it, Ben?"
The boy hesitated. "Am I to—to stay with you?" he asked at last.
For an instant the questioner seemed satisfied; then the peculiar inquiring look returned.
"Anything else, son?"
The lad hesitated longer than before. Beneath the coverings his body moved restlessly.
"Yes, sir, I want to know why nobody would come to help my mamma if she'd sent for them. She said they wouldn't."
The pipe left Rankin's mouth, his great jaws closing with an audible click.
"You wish to know—what did you say, Ben?"
The boy repeated the question.
For a minute, and then another, Rankin said nothing; then he knocked the ashes from the bowl of his brier and laid it upon the table.
"Never mind now why they wouldn't, son." He arose heavily and drew off his coat. "You'll find out for yourself quickly enough—too quickly, my boy. Now go to sleep."
Some men acquire involuntary prominence by being democratic amid aristocratic surroundings. Others, on the contrary, but with the same result, continue to live the life to which they were born, even when placed amid surroundings that make their actions all but grotesque. An example of this latter class was Scotty Baker, whose ranch, as the wild goose flies, was thirteen miles west of the Box R.
Scotty was a very English Englishman, with an inborn love of fine horse-flesh and a guileless nature. Some years before he had fallen into the hands of a promoter, and had bartered a goodly proportion of his worldly belongings for a horse-ranch in Dakota, to be taken possession of immediately. Long indeed was the wail which went up from his home in Sussex when the fact was made known. Neighbors were fluent in denunciation, relatives insistent in expostulation; his wife, and in sympathy their baby daughter, copious in the argument of tears; but the die was irrevocably cast. Go he would,—not from voluntary stubbornness, but because he must.
The actual departure of the Bakers was much like the sailing of Columbus. Probably not one of the friends who saw them off for their new home expected ever to see the family again. Indians they were confident were rampant, and frantic for scalps. Should any by a miracle escape the savages, the tremendous herds of buffalo, running amuck, here and there, could not fail to trample the survivors into the dust of the prairie. By comparison, war was a benignant prospect; and sighs mingled until the sound was as the wailing of winds.
Scotty was very cheerful through it all, very encouraging even in the face of incontestibly unfavorable evidence, until, with the few remnants of civilization they had brought with them, the family arrived at the wind-beaten terminus, a hundred miles from his newly acquired property. Then for the first time he wilted.
"I've been an ass," he admitted bitterly, as he glanced in impotent contempt at the handful of weather-stained buildings which on the map bore the name of a town; "an ass, an egregious, abominable, blethering ass!"
But, notwithstanding his lack of the practical, Scotty was made of good stuff. It was not an alternative but a necessity that faced him now, and he arose right manfully to the occasion. Despite his wife's assertion that she "never, never would go any farther into this God-forsaken country," he succeeded in getting her into a lumber-wagon and headed for what he genially termed "the interior." At last he even succeeded in making her smile at his efforts to make the disreputable mule pack-team he had secured move faster than a walk.
Once in possession of his own, however, he returned to his customary easy manner of life. It took him a very short time to discover that he had purchased a gold brick. Horses, especially fine horses, were in no demand there; but this fact did not alter his course in the least. A horse-ranch he had bought, a horse-ranch he would run, though every man west of the Mississippi should smile. He enlarged his tiny shack to a cottage of three rooms; put in floor and ceiling, and papered the walls. Out of poles and prairie sod he fashioned a serviceable barn, and built an admirable horse paddock. Last of all he planted in his dooryard, in artistic irregularity, a wagon-load of small imported trees. The fact that within six months they all died caused him slight misgiving. He at least had done what he could to beautify the earth; that he failed was nature's fault, not his.
Once settled, he began to make acquaintances. Methodically, to the members of one ranch at a time, he sent invitations to dinner, and upon the appointed date he confronted his guests with a spectacle which made them all but doubt their identity, the like of which most of them had never even seen before. Fancy a cowboy rancher, clad in flannel and leather, welcomed by a host and hostess in complete evening dress, ushered into a room which contained a carpet and a piano, and had lace curtains at the windows; seated later at a table covered with pure linen and set with real china and cut-glass. The experience was like a dream to the visitor. Temporarily, as in a dream, the evening would pass without conscious volition upon the latter's part; and not until later, when he was at home, would the full significance of the experience assert itself, and his wonder and admiration find vent in words. Then indeed would the fame of Scotty Baker, his wife, and little daughter, be heard in the land.
Early in his career, Scotty began to cultivate the impassive Rankin. He fairly bombarded the big rancher with courtesies and invitations. No holiday (and Scotty was an assiduous observer of holidays) was complete unless Rankin was present to help celebrate. No improvement about the ranch was definitely undertaken until Rankin had expressed a favorable opinion concerning the project. Gradually, so gradually that the big man himself did not realize the change, he fell under Scotty's influence, and more and more frequently he was to be found headed toward the cosey Baker cottage. Now, for a year or more, scarcely a Sunday had passed without one or the other of the men finding it possible to traverse the thirty miles intervening between them, to spend a few hours in each other's company.
It was in pursuance of this laudable intention that on the second morning following Ben Blair's adoption into the Box R Ranch—a Sunday—the Englishman hitched a team of his best blooded trotters to the antiquated phaeton, which was the only vehicle he possessed, and started across country at a lively clip. Thus it came to pass that about two hours later, having tied his team at the barn and started for the ranch-house, the visitor saw squarely in his path upon the sunny south doorstep an object that made him pause and blink his near-sighted eyes. Under the concentration of his vision, the object resolved itself into a small boy perched like a frog upon a rock, his fingers locked across his shins, his chin upon his knees. For an instant the Englishman hesitated. Courtesy was instinctive with him.
"Can you tell me whether Mr. Rankin is at home?" he asked.
The lad calmly disentangled himself and stood up.
"You mean the big man, sir?"
Again Scotty was guilty of a breach of etiquette. He stared.
"Certainly," he replied at last.
Ben Blair stepped out of the way.
"Yes, sir, he is."
Within the ranch-house Scotty dropped into the nearest chair.
"Tell me, Rankin," he began, "who is the new-comer, and where did you get him?" A long leg swung comfortably over its mate. "And, by the way, while you're about it, is he six or sixty? By Jove, I couldn't tell!"
The host looked at his visitor quizzically.
"Ben, I suppose you mean?"
"Ben, or Tom, I don't know. I mean the gentleman on the front steps, the one who didn't know your name," and the Englishman related the recent conversation.
The corners of Rankin's eyes tightened into an unwonted smile as he listened, and then contracted until the corner of the large mouth drew upward in sympathy.
"I'm not surprised, Baker," he admitted, "that you're in doubt about Ben's age. He's eight; but I'd be uncertain myself if I didn't absolutely know. As to his not knowing my name—it's just struck me that I've never introduced myself to the little fellow."
"But how did you come to get him? This isn't a country where one sees many children roaming around."
"No," the big mouth dropped back into its normal shape; "that's a fact. He didn't just drop in. I got him by adoption, I suppose; least ways, I asked him to come and live with me, and he accepted." The speaker turned to his companion directly. "You knew Jennie Blair, did you?"
Scotty looked interested.
"Knew of her, but never had the pleasure of an acquaintance. I always—"
"Well," interrupted Rankin impassively, "Ben's her son. She died awhile ago, you remember, and somehow it seemed to break Blair all up. He wouldn't stay here any longer, and didn't want to take the kid with him, so I took the youngster in. As far as I know, the arrangement will stick."
For a minute there was silence. Scotty observed his host shrewdly, almost sceptically.
"That's all of the story, is it?" he asked at last.
"All, as far as I know."
Scotty continued his observation a moment longer.
"But not all the kid knows, I judge."
The host made no comment, and in a distinctively absent manner the Englishman removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses upon the tail of his Sunday frock-coat.
"By the way,"—Scotty returned the glasses to his nose and sprung the bows over his ears with a snap,—"what day was it that Blair left? Did it happen to be Friday?"
"And he doesn't intend ever to return?"
"I believe not."
The visitor's eyes flashed swiftly around the room. The two men were alone.
"I think, then, I see through it." The voice was lower than before. "One of my best mares disappeared night before last, and I haven't been able to get trace of a hoof or hair since."
"What?" Rankin was interested at last.
Scotty repeated the statement, and his host eyed him a full half minute steadily.
"And you just—tell of it?" he said at last.
The Englishman shifted uneasily in his seat.
"Yes." Forgetting that he had just polished his glasses, he took them off and went through the process again.
"Yes, I may as well be honest, I've seen a bit of these Westerners about here, and I don't really agree with their scheme of justice. They're apt to put two and two together and make eight where you know it's only four." For the second time he sprung the bows back over his ears. "And when they find out their beastly mistake—why—oh—it's too late then, perhaps, for some poor devil!"
For another half minute Rankin hesitated; then he reached over and grasped the other man by the hand.
"Baker," he said, "you ain't very practical, but you're dead square." And he shook the hand again.
Of a sudden a twinkle came into the Britisher's eyes and he tore himself loose with an effort.
"By the way," he said, "I'd like to ask a question for future guidance. What would you have done if you'd been in my place?"
Rankin stiffened in his seat, and a color almost red surged beneath the tan of his cheeks; then, as suddenly as his companion had done, he smiled outright.
"I reckon I'd have done just what you did," he admitted; and the two men laughed together.
"Seriously, though," said Scotty, after a moment, "and as long as I've told you anyway, what ought I to do under the circumstances? Should I let Blair off, do you think?"
For a moment Rankin did not answer; then he faced his questioner directly, and Scotty knew why the big man's word was so nearly law in the community.
"Under the circumstances," he repeated, "I'd let him go; for several reasons. First of all, he's got such a start of you now that you couldn't catch him, anyway. Then he's a coward by nature, and it'll be a mighty long time before he ever shows up here again. And last of all," the speaker hesitated, "last of all," he repeated slowly, "though I don't know, I believe you were right when you said the boy could tell more about it than the rest of us; and if what we suspect is true, I think by the time he comes back, if he ever does come, Ben will be old enough to take care of him." Again the speaker paused, and his great jowl settled down into his shirt-front. "If he doesn't, I can't read signs when I see 'em."
For a moment the room was silent; then Scotty sprang to his feet as if a load had been taken off his mind.
"All right," said he, "we'll forget it. And, speaking of forgetting, I've nearly got myself into trouble already. I have an invitation from Mrs. Baker for you to take dinner with us to-day. In fact, I was sent on purpose to bring you. Not a word, not a word!" he continued, at sight of objections gathering on the other's face; "a lady's invitations are sacred, you know. Get your coat!"
Rankin arose with an effort and stood facing his visitor.
"You know I'm always glad to visit you, Baker," he said. "I wasn't thinking of holding off on my own account, but I've got someone else to consider now, you know. Ben—"
"Certainly, certainly!" Scotty's voice was eloquent of comprehension. "Throw the kiddie in too. He can play with Flossie; they're about of an age, and she'll be tickled to death to have him."
Rankin looked at his friend a moment peculiarly. "I know Ben's going would be all right with you, Baker," he explained at last, "but how about your wife? Considering—everything—she might object."
The smile left the Englishman's face, and a look of perplexity took its place.
"By Jove!" he said, "you're right! I never thought of that." He shifted from one foot to the other uneasily. "But, pshaw! What's the use of saying anything whatever about the boy's connections? He's nothing but a youngster,—and, besides, his mother's actions are no fault of his."
Rankin took his top-coat off its peg deliberately.
"All right," he said. "I'll call Ben." At the door he paused, looking back, the peculiar expression again upon his face. "As you say, the faults of Ben's mother are not his faults, anyway."
THE SOIL AND THE SEED
Within the Baker home three persons, a woman and two men, were sitting beside a well-discussed table in the perfect content that follows a good meal. Strange to say, in this frontier land, the men had cigars, and their smoke curled slowly toward the ceiling. Intermittently, with the unconscious attitude of indifference we bestow upon happenings remote from our lives, they were discussing the month-old news of the world, which the messenger from town, who supplied at stated intervals the family wants, had brought the day before.
Out of doors, in the warm sunny plat south of the barn, a small boy and a still smaller girl were engaged in the fascinating occupation of becoming acquainted. The little girl was decidedly taking the initiative.
"How's it come your name is Blair?" she asked, opening fire as soon as they were alone.
The boy pondered the question. It had never occurred to him before. Why should he be called Blair? No adequate reason suggested itself.
"I don't know," he admitted.
The little girl wrinkled her forehead in thought.
"It's funny, isn't it?" she said. "Now, my papa's name is Baker, and my name's Florence Baker. You ought to be Ben Rankin—but you aren't." She stroked a diminutive nose with a fairy forefinger. "It's funny," she repeated.
"Oh!" commented Benjamin. He understood now, but explanations were not a part of his philosophy. "Oh!" and the subject dropped.
"Let's play duck on the rock," suggested Florence.
The boy's hands were deep in the recesses of his pockets.
"I don't know how."
"That's nothing." The small brunette had the air of one to whom difficulties were unknown. "I'll show you. Papa and I play, and it's lots of fun—only he beats me." She looked about for available material.
"You get that little box up by the house," she directed, "and we'll have that for the rock."
Ben did as ordered.
"Now bring two tin cans. You'll find a pile back of the barn."
Once more the boy departed, to return a moment later with a pair of "selects," each bearing in gaudy illumination a composite picture of the ingredients of succotash.
"Now watch me," said Florence.
She carried the box about a rod away and planted it firmly on the ground. "This is the rock," she explained. On the top of the box she perched one of the cans, open end up. "And this is the duck—my duck. Do you see?"
The boy had watched the proceedings carefully. "Yes, I see," he said.
Florence came back to the barn. "Now the game is for you to take this other can and knock my duck off. Then we both run, and if you get your can on the box ahead of me, I'm it, and I'll have to knock off your duck. Are you ready?"
"All right." And the sport was on.
Ben poised his missile and carefully let fly.
"He, he!" tittered Florence. "You missed!"
He retrieved his duck without comment.
"Try again; you've got three chances."
More carefully than before Ben took aim and tossed his can.
"Missed again!" exulted the little brunette. "You've only one more try." And the brown eyes flashed with mischief.
For the last time Ben stood at position.
"Be careful! you're out if you miss."
Even more slowly than before the boy took aim, swung his arm overhead clear from the shoulder, and threw with all his might. There was a flash of gaudy paper through the air, a resounding impact of tin against wood, and the make-believe duck skipped away as though fearful of danger.
For a moment Florence stood aghast, but only for a moment; then she stamped a tiny foot imperiously.
"Oh, you naughty boy!" she exclaimed. "You naughty, naughty boy!"
Once more Ben's hands were in his pockets. "Why?" he asked innocently.
"Because you don't play right!"
"You told me to knock the duck off, and I did!"
"But not that way." Florence's small chin was high in the air. "I'm going in the house."
Ben made no motion to follow her, none to prevent her going.
"I'm sorry," he said simply.
The little girl took two steps decidedly, a third haltingly, a fourth, then stopped and looked back out of the corner of her eye.
"Are you very sorry?" she asked.
Ben nodded his head gravely.
There was a moment of indecision. "All right," she said, with apparent reluctance; "but we won't play duck any more. We'll play drop the handkerchief."
The boy discreetly ignored the change of purpose.
"I don't know how," he admitted once more.
Such deplorable ignorance aroused her sympathy.
"Don't Mr. Rankin, or—or anyone—play with you?" she asked.
Ben shook his head.
"All right, then," she said obligingly, "I'll show you."
With her heel she drew upon the ground a rough circle about ten feet in diameter.
"You can't cross that place in there," she said.
The boy looked at the bare ground critically. No visible barrier presented itself to his vision.
"Why not?" he asked.
Florence made a gesture of disapproval. "Because you can't," she explained. Then, some further reason seeming necessary, she added, "Perhaps there are red-hot irons or snakes, or something, in there. Anyway, you can't cross!"
Ben made no comment, and his instructor looked at him a moment doubtfully.
"Now," she went on, "I stand right here close to the line, and you take the handkerchief." She produced a dainty little kerchief with a "B" embroidered in the corner. "Drop it behind me, and get in my place if you can before I touch you. If you get clear around and catch me before I notice you—you can kiss me. Do you see?"
Ben could see.
"All right, then." And the little girl stood at attention, very prim, apparently very watchful, toes touching the line.
The nature of Benjamin Blair was very direct. The first time he passed, he dropped the handkerchief and proceeded calmly on his journey. His back toward her, the little girl turned and gave a surreptitious glance behind; then quickly shifted to her original position, a look of innocence upon her face. Straight ahead went Ben around the circle—that contained hot irons, or snakes, or something—back to his starting-point, touched the small fragment of femininity upon the shoulder gingerly, as though afraid she would fracture.
"Here's your handkerchief," he said, stooping to recover the bit of linen. "You're it."
"Oh, dear!" she said, in mock despair; "you dropped it the first time, didn't you?"
Ben agreed to the statement.
An unaccountable lull followed. In it he caught a curious sidelong glance from the brown eyes under the drooping lashes.
"I didn't suppose you'd do that the first time," said the little girl. "Papa never does."
The observation seemed irrelevant to Ben Blair, at least inadequate to halt the game; but he made no comment.
Again there was a lull.
"Well," suggested Florence, and a tinge of red surged beneath the soft brown skin.
Ben began to feel uncomfortable. He had a premonition that all was not well.
"You're it, ain't you?" he hesitated at last.
This time, full and fair, the tiny woman looked at him. The color which before had stood just beneath the skin rose burning to her ears, to the roots of her hair. Her big brown eyes flashed fire.
"Ben Blair," she flamed, "you're a 'fraid cat!" Tears welled up into her voice, into her eyes, and she made a motion as if to leave; but the sudden passion of a spoiled child was too strong upon her, the mystified face of the other too near, too tempting. With a motion which was all but involuntary, a tiny brown hand shot out and struck the boy fair on the mouth. "A 'fraid cat, 'fraid cat, and I hate you!"
Never before in his short life had Benjamin Blair met a girl. The ethics of sex was a thing unknown to him, but nevertheless some instinct prevented his returning the insult. Except for the red mark upon his lips, his face grew very white.
"What am I afraid of?" he asked steadily.
Defiant still, the girl held her ground.
"Afraid of what?" she jeered. "You're afraid of everything! 'Fraid cats always are!"
"But what?" pressed the boy. "Tell me something I'm afraid of."
Florence glanced about her. The tall roof of the barn caught her vision.
"You wouldn't dare jump off the roof there, for one thing," she ventured.
Ben looked up. The point mentioned arose at least sixteen feet, and the earth beneath was frozen like asphalt, but he did not hesitate. At the north end, a stack of hay piled against the wall formed a sort of inclined plane, and making a detour he began to climb. Half-way up he lost his footing and came tumbling to the ground; but still he said nothing. The next time he was more careful, and reached the ridge-pole without accident. Below, the little girl, brilliant in her red jacket, stood watching him; but he never even glanced at her. Instead, he raised himself to his full height, looked once at the ground beneath, and jumped.
That instant a wave of contrition swept over Florence. In a sort of vision she saw the boy lying injured, perhaps dead, upon the frozen ground,—and all through her fault! She shut her eyes, and clasped her hands over her face.
A few seconds passed, bringing with them no further sound, and she slowly opened her fingers. Through them, instead of a prostrate corpse, she saw the boy standing erect before her. There was a smear of dust upon his coat and face where he had fallen, and a scratch upon his cheek, which bled a bit, but otherwise he was apparently unhurt. From beneath his long lashes as she looked, the blue eyes met hers, deliberate and unsmiling.
As swiftly as it had come, the mood of contrition passed. In an indefinite sort of way the girl experienced a sensation of disappointment,—a feeling of being deprived of something which was her due. She was only a child, a spoiled child, and her defiance arose anew. A moment so the children faced each other.
"Do you still think I'm afraid?" asked the boy at last.
Again the hot color flamed beneath the brown skin.
"Pooh!" said the girl, "that was nothing!" She tossed her head in derision. "Anyone could do that!"