CLAIM NUMBER ONE
GEORGE W. OGDEN
Author of The Duke of Chimney Butte Trails End, Etc.
Frontispiece by J. Allen St. John
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York
Made in the United States of America
A. C. McClurg & Co. 1922
Published May, 1922
Copyrighted in Great Britain
Printed in the United States of America
CONTENTS I. Comanche 1 II. Guests for the Metropole 9 III. Unconventional Behavior 21 IV. The Flat-Game Man 46 V. Skulkers 63 VI. The Drawing 79 VII. A Midnight Extra 104 VIII. The Governor's Son 122 IX. Double Crookedness 140 X. Hun Shanklin's Coat 154 XI. Number One 172 XII. The Other Man 188 XIII. Sentiment and Nails 206 XIV. "Like a Wolf" 219 XV. An Argument Ends 233 XVI. A Promise 255 XVII. A Plan 273 XVIII. The Strange Tent 288 XIX. Crook Meets Crook 304 XX. A Sudden Cloud 325 XXI. The Crisis 343
CLAIM NUMBER ONE
Coming to Comanche, you stopped, for Comanche was the end of the world. Unless, of course, you were one of those who wished to push the boundary-line of the world farther, to make homes in the wilderness where there had been no homes, to plant green fields in the desert where none had been before.
In that case you merely paused at Comanche, like the railroad, to wait the turn of events.
Beyond Comanche was the river, and beyond the river, dim-lined in the west, the mountains. Between the river and the mountains lay the reservation from which the government had pushed the Indians, and which it had cut into parcels to be drawn by lot.
And so Comanche was there on the white plain to serve the present, and temporary, purpose of housing and feeding the thousands who had collected there at the lure of chance with practical, impractical, speculative, romantic, honest, and dishonest ideas and intentions. Whether it should survive to become a colorless post-office and shipping-station for wool, hides, and sheep remained for the future to decide. As the town appeared under the burning sun of that August afternoon one might have believed, within bounds, that its importance was established for good and all.
It was laid out with the regular severity of the surveyor's art. Behind the fresh, new railroad depot the tented streets swept away pretentiously. In the old settlements—as much as two months before that day some of them had been built—several business houses of wood and corrugated sheet-iron reared above the canvas roofs of their neighbors, displaying in their windows all the wares which might be classified among the needs of those who had come to break the desert, from anvils to zitherns; from beads, beds, and bridles to winches, wagons, water bottles, and collapsible cups.
At the head of the main street stood a hydrant, which the railroad company supplied with water, offering its refreshment to all comers—to man, beast, and Indian, as well as to dusty tourists with red handkerchiefs about their necks. Around it, where teams had been fed and the overflow of water had run, little green forests of oats were springing, testifying to the fecundity of the soil, lighting unbelieving eyes with hope.
"Just look what a little water will do!" said the locaters and town-site men, pointing with eloquent gesture. "All this land needs, gentlemen, is a little water to make it a paradise!"
On the right hand of the hydrant there was a bank, presenting a front of bricked stability, its boarded sides painted in imitation of that same resisting material, for the comfort of its depositors perhaps, and the benefit of its credit before the eyes of the passing world. Well out in the desert, among the hummocks of earth heaped around anchoring sage clumps, stood the Elkhorn Hotel. It was built of logs, with a design toward the picturesque and an eye to the tourist class of adventurers who were expected to throng to the opening. The logs had been cut along the river—they were that gnarled cottonwood which grows, leaning always toward the northeast, in that land of bitter extremes—the bark stripped from them until they gleamed yellowly, and fitted together with studied crudity. Upon the projecting end of the ridge-pole rode a spreading elk-prong, weathered, white, old.
And there was the Hotel Metropole. There always is a Hotel Metropole and a newspaper, no matter where you go. When you travel beyond them you have penetrated the Ultima Thule of modern times. The Hotel Metropole was near the station. It was picturesque without straining for it. Mainly it was a large, sandy lot with a rope around it; but part of it was tents of various colors, sizes, and shapes, arranged around the parent shelter of them all—a circus "top," weathered and stained from the storms of many years. Their huddling attitude seemed to express a lack of confidence in their own stability. They seemed a brood of dusty chicks, pressing in for shelter of the mothering wing.
All was under the direction of a small man with a cream-colored waistcoat and a most incendiary-looking nose. It seemed tempting the laws of physics governing dry materials and live coals to bring that nose into the shelter of a desert-bleached tent. But it was there, and it flared its welcome with impartial ardor upon all arrivals.
The scheme of the Hotel Metropole was this: If you wanted a cot in a tent where each bed was partitioned from the other by a drop-curtain of calico print, you could enjoy that luxury at the rate of two dollars a night in advance, no baggage accepted as security, no matter what its heft or outward appearance of value. If you didn't want to go that high, or maybe were not so particular about the privacy of your sleeping arrangements, you might have a cot anywhere in the circus-tentful of cots, spread out like pews. There the charge was one dollar. That rate chancing to be too steep for you, you might go into the open and rest in one of the outdoor canvas pockets, which bellied down under your weight like a hammock. There the schedule was fifty cents.
No matter what part of the house you might occupy on retiring, you were warned by the wall-eyed young man who piloted you to the cot with your number pinned on it that the hotel was not responsible for the personal belongings of the guests. You were also cautioned to watch out for thieves. The display of firearms while disrobing seemed to be encouraged by the management for its moral effect, and to be a part of the ceremony of retiring. It seemed to be the belief in the Hotel Metropole that when a man stored a pistol beneath his pillow, or wedged it in between his ribs and the side of the bunk, he had secured the safety of the night.
At the distant end of the main street, standing squarely across its center, stood the little house which sheltered the branch of the United States land-office, the headquarters being at Meander, a town a day's journey beyond the railroad's end. A tight little board house it was, like a toy, flying the emblem of the brave and the free as gallantly as a schoolhouse or a forest-ranger station. Around it the crowd looked black and dense from the railroad station. It gave an impression of great activity and earnest business attention, while the flag was reassuring to a man when he stepped off the train sort of dubiously and saw it waving there at the end of the world.
Indeed, Comanche might be the end of the world—didn't the maps show that it was the end of the world, didn't the railroad stop there, and doesn't the world always come to an abrupt end, all white and uncharted beyond, at the last station on every railroad map you ever saw? It might be the end of the world, indeed, but there was the flag! Commerce could flourish there as well as in Washington, D. C., or New York, N. Y., or Kansas City, U. S. A.; even trusts might swell and distend there under its benign protectorate as in the centers of civilization and patriotism pointed above.
So there was assurance and comfort to the timid in the flag at Comanche, as there has been in the flag in other places at other times. For the flag is a great institution when a man is far away from home and expecting to bump into trouble at the next step.
Opposite the bank on the main street of Comanche were the tents of the gods of chance. They were a hungry-mouthed looking lot that presided within them, taken at their best, for the picking had been growing slimmer and slimmer in Wyoming year by year. They had gathered there from the Chugwater to the Big Horn Basin in the expectation of getting their skins filled out once more.
One could find in those tents all the known games of cowboy literature, and a good many which needed explanation to the travelers from afar. There was only one way to understand them thoroughly, and that was by playing them, and there seemed to be a pretty good percentage of curious persons in the throng that sweated in Comanche that day.
That was all of Comanche—tents, hydrant, hotels, bank, business houses, and tents again—unless one considered the small tent-restaurants and lodging-places, of which there were hundreds; or the saloons, of which there were scores. But when they were counted in, that was all.
Everybody in Comanche who owned a tent was on the make, and the making was good. Many of the home-seekers and adventure-expectant young men and women had been on the ground two weeks. They had been paying out good money for dusty stage-rides over the promising lands which had been allotted to the Indians already by the government. The stage people didn't tell them anything about that, which was just as well. It looked like land where stuff might be grown with irrigation, inspiration, intensity of application, and undying hope. And the locaters and town-site boomers led their customers around to the hydrant and pointed to the sprouting oats.
"Spill a little water on this land and it's got Egypt skinned," they said.
So the mild adventurers stayed on for the drawing of claims, their ideals and notions taking on fresh color, their canned tomatoes (see the proper literature for the uses of canned tomatoes in desert countries frequented by cowboys) safely packed away in their trunks against a day of emergency.
Every one of them expected to draw Claim Number One, and every one of them was under the spell of dreams. For the long summer days of Wyoming were as white as diamonds, and the soft blue mountains stood along the distant west beyond the bright river as if to fend the land from hardships and inclemencies, and nurture in its breast the hopes of men.
Every train brought several hundred more to add to the throng already in Comanche—most of them from beyond the Mississippi, many of them schemers, most of them dreamers ready to sacrifice all the endearments of civilization for the romance of pioneering in the West, beyond the limits of the world as defined by the map of the railroad-line over which they had come.
GUESTS FOR THE METROPOLE
To Comanche there came that August afternoon, when it was wearing down to long shadows, a mixed company, drawn from the far places and the middle distances east of Wyoming. This company had assembled in the course of the day's acquaintance on the last long, dusty run into the land of expectations.
At dawn these people had left their comfortable sleeping-cars at Chadron, in the Nebraska desert, to change to the train of archaic coaches which transported the land-seekers across the last stretch of their journey. Before that morning the company had been pursuing its way as individual parts—all, that is, with the exception of the miller's wife, from near Boston; the sister of the miller's wife, who was a widow and the mother of June; and June, who was pasty and off-color, due to much fudge and polishing in a young ladies' school.
These three traveled together, as three of such close relationship naturally should travel. The widow was taking June to Wyoming to see if she could put some marketable color in her cheeks, and the miller's wife was going along for a belated realization, at least partially, of youthful yearnings.
Since seventeen the miller's wife had longed to see the sun set behind a mountain with snow upon it, and to see a cowboy with dust on his shoulders, like the cowboys of the western drama, come riding out of the glow, a speck at first, and on, and on, until he arrived where she waited and flung himself from his panting horse, neckerchief awry, spurs tinkling, and swept off his broad hat in salute. Beyond that point she had not dared to go since marrying the miller, who had dust enough on his shoulders—unromantic dust, unromantic shoulders, goodness knows! But that was her picture, all framed in the gold of her heart. She wanted to see the mountain with the sun behind it, and the cowboy, and all, and then she could sigh, and go back to the miller and near Boston to await the prosaic end.
For all of her thirty-eight years Mrs. Dorothy Mann was shy in proportion as her miller husband, the widely known J. Milton Mann was bold. That he was a hard-mailed knight in the lists of business, and that he was universally known, Mrs. Mann was ready to contend and uphold in any company. She carried with her in the black bag which always hung upon her arm certain poems bearing her husband's confession of authorship, which had been printed in the Millers' Journal, all of them calling public attention to the noble office of his ancient trade. Of course the miller was not of the party, so we really have nothing more to do with him than we have with the rest of the throng that arrived on the train with these singled-out adventurers. But his influence traveled far, like a shadow reaching out after the heart of his spare, pert, large-eyed wife. She was not yet so far away from him that she dared move even her eyes as her heart longed.
In the manner of the miller's wife, there was a restraint upon the most commonplace and necessary intercourse with strangers which seemed almost childish. She even turned in questioning indecision toward June's mother before taking a seat offered her by a strange man, feeling at the same time of the black bag upon her arm, where the poems reposed, as if to beg indulgence from their author for any liberties which she might assume.
June's mother, Mrs. Malvina Reed, widow of that great statesman, the Hon. Alonzo Confucius Reed, who will be remembered as the author of the notable bill to prohibit barbers breathing on the backs of their customers' necks, was duenna of the party. She was a dumpy, small woman, gray, with lines in her steamed face, in which all attempts at rejuvenation had failed.
Mrs. Reed was a severe lady when it came to respecting the conventions of polite life, and June was her heart's deep worry. She believed that young woman to be in the first stage of a dangerous and mysterious malady, which belief and which malady were alike nothing in the world but fudge. When she turned her eyes upon June's overfed face a moisture came into them; a sigh disturbed her breast.
By one of those strange chances, such as seem to us when we meet them nothing short of preconceived arrangement, enough seats had been left unoccupied in the rear coach, all in one place, to accommodate a second party, which came straggling through with hand-baggage hooked upon all its dependent accessories. It proved very pleasant for all involved. There the June party scraped acquaintance with the others, after the first restraint had been dissolved in a discussion of the virtues of canned tomatoes applied to the tongue of one famishing in the desert.
First among the others was the bright-haired young woman from Canton, Ohio, whose gray eyes seemed older than herself, lighting as if with new hope every time they turned to acknowledge a good wish for her luck in the new land. It seemed at such moments as if she quickened with the belief that she was coming upon the track of something which she had lost, and was in a way of getting trace of it again.
She sat up straight-backed as a saint in a cathedral window, but she unbent toward June. June was not long in finding out that she, also, was a product of grand old Molly Bawn, that mighty institution of learning so justly famed throughout the world for its fudge; that her name was Agnes Horton, and that she was going to register for a piece of land.
Some five years before June had matriculated, Agnes Horton had stepped out, finished, from the halls of Molly Bawn.
"She's old," confided June to her mother's ear. "She must be at least twenty-five!"
Old or young, she was handsomer than any other woman on the train, and seemingly unaware of it as she leaned her elbow upon the dusty window-sill and gazed out in pensive introspection upon the bleak land where glaciers had trampled and volcanoes raged, each of them leaving its waste of worn stone and blackened ledge.
And there was the school-teacher from Iowa; a long, thin string of a man, who combed his hair straight back from his narrow, dished forehead and said "idear." He was thinking seriously of sheep.
And there was the commissary sergeant from Fort Sheridan, which is within the shadow of Chicago, German-faced, towering, broad. He blushed as if scandalized every time a woman spoke to him, and he took Limburger cheese and onions from his cloth telescope grip for his noonday lunch.
And there was the well-mannered manufacturer of tools, who came from Buffalo, and his bald brother with him, who followed the law. There was the insurance man from Kansas, who grinned when he wasn't talking and talked when he didn't grin; and the doctor from Missouri, a large-framed man with a worn face and anxious look, traveling westward in hope; and the lumberman from Minnesota, who wore a round hat and looked meek, like a secretary of a Y. M. C. A., and spat tobacco-juice out of the window.
All of these men, save the school-teacher and manufacturer, were more or less failures, one way or another. Take the sergeant—Sergeant Schaefer, and Jake was the name in front of that—for example. He had failed in his examination for advancement to a commission, and blamed the aristocracy of the army for it. He was disgusted with military life; and to him a claim, especially Claim Number One, in the Indian Reservation of Wyoming, looked like a haven of independence and peace.
There was the bald lawyer, too; a young man old from his honest cares, a failure in the law because he could not square his conscience with its practices. He was ready to quit it for an alfalfa-plot and a little bunch of fat cattle—especially if he drew Number One.
Horace Bentley sighed when he looked back upon his struggles with the world and the law. The law had been a saddle that galled his back through many a heavy year. And his brother William, in need of a holiday from his busy factory, had taken a month to himself to see "the boy," as he called Horace, established in a new calling in the high-minded, open-faced West.
As for the insurance solicitor and lumberman, it must be owned that they were gamblers on the drawing. They meant to register and hang around for the lottery. Then if they should draw Number One, or even anything up to a hundred, they would sell out for what there was to be gained.
With Dr. Warren Slavens it was quite different from the case of these purely adventurous speculators. Dr. Slavens had been late in getting a start. It was not a difficulty peculiar to him alone that the start always seemed a considerable distance ahead of him. Up to that time he had been engaged with merely the preliminaries, and they had hobbled him and cumbered him, and heaped up continually such a mass of matter to be smoothed out of the way of his going, that he never had struck a canter on the highway of life.
Of all the disheartened, blue, and beaten men on that dusty train that dusty day, Dr. Warren Slavens, late of Missouri, was without question the deepest down in the quagmire of failure. He hated himself for the fizzle that he had made of it, and he hated the world that would not open the gates and give him one straight dash for the goal among men of his size.
He went frequently to the platform of the car and took a long pull at a big, black pipe which he carried in a formidable leather case, like a surgical instrument, in his inner pocket. After each pull at it he returned with a redder face and a cloudier brow, ready to snap and snarl like an under dog that believes every foot in the world is raised to come down on his own ribs.
But there was nobody on that train who cared an empty sardine-can for the doctor's failures or feelings. Nobody wanted to jab him in the ribs; nobody wanted to hear his complaint. He was wise enough to know it, in a way. So he kept to himself, pulling his shoulders up in soldierly fashion when he passed Agnes Horton's place, or when he felt that she was looking at him from her station directly behind his seat.
At any rate, up to the neck as he was in the bog of failure, the doctor was going to Wyoming with a good many practical advantages ahead of thousands of his fellows. Before turning doctor he had been a farmer's boy; and he told himself that, failing in his solid determination to get up to the starting-line in his profession, he believed he could do pretty well at his older trade. But if he drew Claim Number One he meant to sell it for ten thousand dollars—that being the current valuation placed on first choice—and go back home to establish himself in dignity and build up a practice.
The school-teacher hadn't much to say, but his cast was serious. He expected to draw Number One, not to sell, but to improve, to put sheep on, and alfalfa, and build a long barn with his name on the roof so that it could be read from the railroad as the trains went by.
June's mother, being a widow, was eligible for the drawing. She also meant to register. If she drew Number One—and she hadn't yet made up her mind about the certainty of that—she intended to sell her relinquishment and take June to Vienna for examination by an eminent physician.
When anybody asked Agnes Horton what she intended to do with her winnings out of the land lottery, she only smiled with that little jumping of hope in her eyes. It was a marvel to the whole party what a well set-up girl like her, with her refinement and looks and clothes, wanted to fool her time away in Wyoming for, when the world was full of men who would wear their hands raw to smooth a way for her feet to pass in pleasanter places. But all of them could see that in her heart the hope of Number One was as big as a can of tomatoes—in cowboy literature—to the eyes of a man dying of thirst in Death Valley.
Only the toolmaker, William Bentley—and he was gray at the curling hair which turned up at his broad temples—smiled as if he held it to be a pleasant fantasy, too nebulous and far-away to be realized upon, when any asked him of his intentions concerning Number One. He put off his questioners with a pleasantry when they pressed him, but there was such a tenderness in his eyes as he looked at his pale, bald brother, old in honest ways before his time, that it was the same as spoken words.
So it will be seen that a great deal depended on Claim Number One, not alone among the pleasant little company of ours, but in the calculations of every man and woman out of the forty-seven thousand who would register, ultimately, for the chance and the hope of drawing it.
At Casper a runner for the Hotel Metropole had boarded the train. He was a voluble young man with a thousand reasons why travelers to the end of the world and the railroad should patronize the Hotel Metropole and no other. He sat on the arms of passengers' seats and made his argument, having along with him a great quantity of yellow cards, each card bearing a number, each good for an apartment or a cot in the open. By payment of the rate, a person could secure his bed ahead of any need for it which, said the young man, was the precaution of a wise ginny who was on to his job. The train conductor vouched for the genuineness of the young man's credentials, and conditions of things at Comanche as he pictured them.
It was due to Sergeant Jake Schaefer that the company organized to mess together. The hotel representative fell in with the idea with great warmth. There was a large tent on the corner, just off Main Street, which the company could rent, said he. A partition would be put in it for the privacy of the ladies, and the hotel would supply the guests with a stove and utensils. June's mother liked the notion. It relieved her of a great worry, for with a stove of her own she could still contrive those dainties so necessary to the continued existence of the delicate child.
So the bargain was struck, the sergeant was placed in charge of the conduct and supply of the camp, and everybody breathed easier. They had anticipated difficulty over the matter of lodging and food in Comanche, for wild tales of extortion and crowding, and undesirable conditions generally, had been traveling through the train all day.
Comanche was quiet when the train arrived, for that was the part of the day when the lull between the afternoon's activities and the night's frantic reaping fell. Everyone who had arrived the day previous accounted himself an old-timer, and all such, together with all the arrivals of all the days since the registration began, came down to see the tenderfeet swallow their first impressions of the coming Eden.
The Hotel Metropole was the only public house in Comanche that maintained a conveyance to meet travelers at the station, and that was for the transportation of their baggage only. For a man will follow his belongings and stick to them in one place as well as another, and the proprietor of the Metropole was philosopher enough to know that. So his men with the wagon grabbed all the baggage they could wrench from, lift from under, or pry out of the grasp of travelers when they stepped off the train.
The June party saw their possessions loaded into the wagon, under the loud supervision of Sergeant Schaefer, who had been in that country before and could be neither intimidated, out-sounded, nor bluffed. Then, following their traveling agent-guide, they pushed through the crowds to their quarters.
Fortunate, indeed, they considered themselves when they saw how matters stood in Comanche. There seemed to be two men for every cot in the place. Of women there were few, and June's mother shuddered when she thought of what they would have been obliged to face if they hadn't been so lucky as to get a tent to themselves.
"I never would have got off that train!" she declared. "No, I never would have brought my daughter into any such unprotected place as this!"
Mrs. Reed looked around her severely, for life was starting to lift its head again in Comanche after the oppression of the afternoon's heat.
Mrs. Mann smiled. She was beginning to take a comprehensive account of the distance between Wyoming and the town near Boston where the miller toiled in the gloom of his mill.
"I think it's perfectly lovely and romantic!" said she.
Mrs. Reed received the outburst with disfavor.
"Remember your husband, Dorothy Ann!" warned she.
Dorothy Ann sighed, gently caressing the black bag which dangled upon her slender arm.
"I do, Malvina," said she.
Their situation was somewhat beyond the seat of noisy business and raucous-throated pleasure. Mrs. Reed, while living in an unending state of shivers on account of the imagined perils which stalked the footsteps of June, was a bit assured by their surroundings.
In front of them was a vacant plot, in which inoffensive horses took their siesta in the sun, awaiting someone to come along and hire them for rides of inspection over the lands which were soon to be apportioned by lot. A trifle farther along stood a little church, its unglazed windows black and hollow, like gouged-out eyes. Mrs. Reed drew a vast amount of comfort from the church, and their proximity to it, knowing nothing of its history nor its present uses. Its presence there was proof to her that all Comanche was not a waste of iniquity.
Almost directly in front of their tent the road branched—one prong running to Meander, the county Seat, sixty miles away; the other to the Big Horn Valley. The scarred stagecoaches which had come down from the seventies were still in use on both routes, the two on the Meander line being reenforced by democrat wagons when there was an overflow of business, as frequently happened in those prosperous times.
Every morning the company assembled before the tent under the canvas spread to protect the cookstove, to watch Mrs. Reed and Sergeant Schaefer get breakfast, and to offer suggestions about the fire, and admire June at her toast-making—the one branch of domestic art, aside from fudge, which she had mastered. About that time the stage would pass, setting out on its dusty run to Meander, and everybody on it and in it would wave, everybody in the genial company before the tent would wave back, and all of the adventurers on both sides would feel quite primitive, in spite of the snuffling of the locomotive at the railway station, pushing around freight-cars.
The locomotive seemed to tell them that they should not be deceived, that all of this crude setting was a sham and a pretense, and that they had not yet outrun the conveniences of modern life.
Dr. Slavens appeared to be getting the upper hand of his melancholy, and to be drawing the comfort from his black pipe that it was designed to give. Next to the sergeant he was the handiest man in the camp, showing by his readiness to turn a full hand at anything, from paring potatoes to making a fire, that he had shifted for himself before that day. The ladies all admired him, as they always admire a man who has a little cloud of the mysterious about him. Mrs. Reed wondered, audibly, in the presence of June and Miss Horton, if he had deserted his wife.
The others were full of the excitement of their novel situation, and drunk on the blue skies which strained the sunlight of its mists and motes, pouring it down like a baptismal blessing. Even William Bentley, the toolmaker, romped and raced in the ankle-deep dust like a boy.
Sunrise always found the floating population of Comanche setting breakfastward in a clamoring tide. After that, when the land-office opened at nine o'clock, the stream turned toward it, the crowd grew around it, fringing off into the great, empty flat in which it stood—a stretch of naked land so white and gleaming under the sun that it made the eyes ache. There the land-seekers and thrill-hunters kicked up the dust, and got their thousands of clerkly necks burned red, and their thousands of indoor noses peeled, while they discussed the chances of disposing of the high numbers for enough to pay them for the expense of the trip.
After noonday the throngs sought the hydrant and the shade of the saloons, and, where finances would permit, the solace of bottled beer. And all day over Comanche the heel-ground dust rose as from the trampling of ten thousand hoofs, and through its tent-set streets the numbers of a strong army passed and repassed, gazing upon its gaudy lures. They had come there to gamble in a big, free lottery, where the only stake was the time spent and the money expended in coming, in which the grand prize was Claim Number One.
"It looks to me," said Horace Bentley, the bald lawyer, "like a great many people are going to be bitterly disappointed in this game. More than forty thousand have registered already, and there are three days more before the books close. The government circulars describing the land say there are eight thousand homesteads, all told—six hundred of them suitable for agriculture once they are brought under irrigation, the rest grazing and mineral land. It seems to me that, as far as our expectations go in that direction, we might as well pack up and go home."
Four days in camp had made old-timers out of the company gathered under the awning before their tent, waiting for the meal which Mrs. Reed and her assistants were even then spreading on the trestle-built table. There had been a shower that afternoon, one of those gusty, blustery, desert demonstrations which had wrenched the tents and torn hundreds of them from their slack anchoring in the loose soil.
After the storm, with its splash of big drops and charge of blinding dust, a cool serenity had fallen over the land. The milk had been washed out of the distances, and in the far southwest snowy peaks gleamed solemnly in the setting sun, the barrier on the uttermost edge of the desert leagues which so many thousand men and women were hungry to share.
"Yes, it's a desperate gamble for all of us," Dr. Slavens admitted. "I don't see any more show of anybody in this party drawing a low number than I see hope for a man who stands up to one of the swindles in the gambling-tents over there."
"Still," argued Milo Strong, the Iowa teacher, "we've got just the same chance as anybody out of the forty thousand. I don't suppose there's any question that the drawing will be fair?"
"It will be under the personal management of the United States Land Commissioner at Meander," said Horace Bentley.
"How do they work it?" asked June, perking up her head in quick interest from her task of hammering together the seams of a leaky new tin cup. She had it over a projecting end of one of the trestles, and was going about it like a mechanic.
"Where did you learn that trick?" inquired the toolmaker, a look in his eyes which was pretty close kin to amazement.
"Huh!" said June, hammering away. "What do you suppose a college education's good for, anyway? But how do they manage the drawing?" she pressed.
"Did they teach you the game of policy at Molly Bawn?" the lawyer asked.
"The idea!" sniffed Mrs. Reed.
Miss Horton smiled into her handkerchief, and June shook her head in vigorous denial.
"I don't even know what it is," said she. "Is it some kind of insurance?"
"It beats insurance for the man that runs the game," said Strong, reminiscently.
"All of the names of those who register will be taken to Meander when the registration closes," explained Horace. "There are half a dozen clerks in the little office here transcribing the names on to small cards, with the addresses and all necessary information for notifying a winner. On the day of the drawing the forty thousand-odd names will be put into a big hollow drum, fitted with a crank. They'll whirl it, and then a blindfolded child will put his hand into the drum and draw out Number One. Another child will then draw Number Two, and so on until eight thousand names have come out of the wheel. As there are only eight thousand parcels of land, that will end the lottery. What do you think of your chance by now, Miss Horton?"
"Why, it looks fair enough, the way they do it," she answered, questioning Dr. Slavens with her eyes.
He shook his head.
"You can't tell," he responded. "I've seen enough crookedness in this tent-town in the past four days to set my suspicions against everything and every official in it."
"Well, the drawing's to be held at Meander, you know," reminded William Bentley, the toolmaker, "and Meander advertises itself as a moral center. It seems that it was against this town from the very start—it wanted the whole show to itself. Here's a circular that I got at Meander headquarters today. It's got a great knock against Comanche in it."
"Yes, I saw it," said the doctor. "It sounds like one crook knocking another. But it can't be any worse than this place, anyhow. I think I'll take a ride over there in a day or so and size it up."
"Well, I surrender all pretensions to Claim Number One," laughed Mrs. Reed, a straining of color in her cheeks.
June had not demanded fudge once in four days. That alone was enough to raise the colors of courage in her mother's face, even if there hadn't been a change in the young lady for the better in other directions. Four days of Wyoming summer sun and wind had made as much difference in June as four days of September blaze make in a peach on the tip of an exposed bough. She was browning and reddening beautifully, and her hair was taking on a trick of wildness, blowing friskily about her eyes.
It was plain that June had in her all the making of a hummer. That's what Horace Bentley, the lawyer, owned to himself as he told her mother in confidence that a month of that high country, with its fresh-from-creation air, would be better for the girl's natural endowments than all the beauty-parlors of Boston or the specialists of Vienna. Horace felt of his early bald spot, half believing that some stubby hairs were starting there already.
There was still a glow of twilight in the sky when lights appeared in the windowless windows of the church, and the whine of tuning fiddles came out of its open door. Mrs. Reed stiffened as she located the sound, and an expression of outraged sanctity appeared in her face. She turned to Dr. Slavens.
"Are they going to—to—dance in that building?" she demanded.
"I'm afraid they are," said he. "It's used for dancing, they tell me."
"But it's a church—it's consecrated!" she gasped.
"I reckon it's worn off by this time," he comforted. "It was a church a long, long time ago—for Comanche. The saloon man across from it told me its history. He considered locating in it, he said, but they wanted too much rent.
"When Comanche was only a railroad camp—a good while before the rails were laid this far—a traveling preacher struck the town and warmed them up with an old-style revival. They chipped in the money to build the church in the fervor of the passing glow, and the preacher had it put up—just as you see it, belfry and all.
"They even bought a bell for it, and it used to ding for the sheepmen and railroaders, as long as their religion lasted. When it ran out, the preacher moved on to fresh fields, and a rancher bought the bell to call his hands to dinner. The respectable element of Comanche—that is, the storekeepers, their wives, daughters and sons, and the clerks, and others—hold a dance there now twice a week. That is their only relaxation."
"It's a shame!" declared Mrs. Reed.
"Oh, I don't know," said the doctor easily.
"I'm so disappointed in it!" said she.
"Because it represents itself as a church when it's something else?" inquired the doctor softly. "Well, I shouldn't be, if I were you. It has really nothing to be ashamed of, for the respectable are mightily in the minority in Comanche, I can tell you, madam—that is, among the regular inhabitants."
"Let's go over and look on," suggested William Bentley. "It may make some of you gloomy people forget your future troubles for a while."
The party soon found that looking on exposed them to the contagion of sociability. They were such wholesome-looking people at the gathering, and their efforts to make the visitors who stood outside the door feel at home and comfortable were so genuine, that reserve dissolved most unaccountably.
It was not long before June's mother, her prejudices against such frivolous and worldly use of a church blown away, was pigeoning around with William Bentley. Likewise Mrs. Mann, the miller out of sight and out of mind, stepped lightly with Horace, the lawyer, the sober black bag doubled up and stored in the pocket of his coat, its handles dangling like bridle-reins.
June alone was left unpaired, in company with the doctor and Miss Horton, who asserted that they did not dance. Her heels were itching to be clicking off that jolly two-step which the Italian fiddlers and harpist played with such enticing swing. The school-teacher and the sergeant were not with them, having gone out on some expedition of their own among the allurements of Comanche.
But June hadn't long to bear the itch of impatience, for ladies were not plentiful at the dance. Before anybody had time to be astonished by his boldness, a young man was bowing before June, presenting his crooked elbow, inviting her to the dance with all the polish that could possibly lie on any one man. On account of an unusually enthusiastic clatter of heels at that moment, Dr. Slavens and Miss Horton, a few paces distant, could not hear what he said, but they caught their breaths a little sharply when June took the proffered arm.
"Surest thing you know," they heard her eager little voice say as she passed them with a happy, triumphant look behind.
Dr. Slavens looked at Miss Horton; Miss Horton looked at the doctor. Both laughed.
"Well, I like that!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," he agreed, but apparently from quite a different angle, "so do I. It's natural and unaffected; it's coming down to first principles. Well, I don't see that there's anything left for you and me to do but use up some of this moonlight in a walk. I'd like to see the river in this light. Come?"
"Oh, that would be unconventional!" she protested.
But it was not a strong protest; more of a question perhaps, which left it all to him.
"This is an unconventional country," he said. "Look at it, as white as snow under this summer moon."
"It's lovely by night," she agreed; "but this Comanche is like a sore spot on a clean skin. It's a blight and a disfigurement, and these noises they make after dark sound like some savage revel."
"We'll put them behind us for two hours or so," he decided with finality which allowed no further argument.
As they set off toward the river he did not offer her the support of his arm, for she strode beside him with her hands swinging free, long step to his long step, not a creature of whims and shams, he knew, quite able to bear her own weight on a rougher road than that.
"Still it is unconventional," she reflected, looking away over the flat land.
"That's the beauty of it," said he. "Let's be just natural."
They passed beyond the straggling limits of Comanche, where the town blended out into the plain in the tattered tents and road-battered wagons of the most earnest of all the home-seekers, those who had staked everything on the hope of drawing a piece of land which would serve at last as a refuge against the world's buffeting.
Under their feet was the low-clinging sheep-sage and the running herbs of yellow and gray which seemed so juiceless and dry to the eye, but which were the provender of thousands of sheep and cattle that never knew the shelter of fold or stable, nor the taste of man-grown grain or fodder, from the day of their birth to the day of their marketing. Winter and summer alike, under the parching sun, under the strangling drifts, that clinging, gray vegetation was the animals' sole nutriment.
Behind the couple the noises of Comanche died to murmurs. Ahead of them rose the dark line of cottonwoods which stood upon the river-shore.
"I want to take another look at the Buckhorn Canyon," said the doctor, stalking on in his sturdy, farm-bred gait.
"It makes a fearful roar," she remarked as they approached the place where the swift river, compressed into the flumelike passage which it had whetted out of the granite, tossed its white mane in the moonlight before plunging into the dark door of the canyon.
"I've been hearing yarns and traditions about that canyon ever since I came here," he told her. "They say it's a thousand feet deep in places."
"June and I came over here this morning," said Agnes, "along with Sergeant Schaefer. He said he didn't believe that June could hike that far. I sat here on the rocks a long time watching it. I never saw so much mystery and terror in water before."
She drew a little nearer to him as she spoke, and he put his hand on her shoulder in an unconscious movement of restraint as she leaned over among the black boulders and peered into the hissing current.
"Do you suppose anybody ever went in there?" she asked.
"They say the Indians know some way of getting through," he replied, "but no white man ever went into the canyon and came out alive. The last one to try it was a representative of a Denver paper who came out here at the beginning of the registration. He went in there with his camera on his back after a story."
"Poor fellow! Did he get through—at all?"
"They haven't reported him on the other side yet. His paper offers a reward for the solution of the mystery of his disappearance, which is no mystery at all. He didn't have the right kind of footgear, and he slipped. That's all there is to it."
He felt her shudder under his hand, which remained unaccountably on her warm shoulder after the need of restraint had passed.
"It's a forbidding place by day," said she, "and worse at night. Just think of the despair of that poor man when he felt himself falling down there in the dark!"
"Moccasins are the things for a job like that," he declared. "I've studied it all out; I believe I could go through there without a scratch."
"What in the world would anybody want to do it for? What is there to be gained by it, to the good of anybody?" she wondered.
"Well, there's the reward of five hundred dollars offered by the newspaper in Denver," he answered.
"It's a pitiful stake against such odds!" she scorned.
"And all the old settlers say there's gold in there—rich pockets of it, washed out of the ledges in the sides of the walls and held by the rocks in the river-bed and along the margins. A nugget is picked up now and then on the other side, so there seems to be ground for the belief that fortune waits for the man who makes a careful exploration."
"He couldn't carry enough of it out to make it worth while," she objected.
"But he could go back," Dr. Slavens reminded her. "It would be easy the second time. Or he might put in effect the scheme a sheep-herder had once."
"What was that?" she asked, turning her face up to him from her place on the low stone where she sat, the moonlight glinting in her eyes.
He laughed a little.
"Not that it was much of a joke the way it turned out," he explained. "He went in there to hunt for the gold, leaving two of his companions to labor along the brink of the canyon above and listen for his signal shout in case he came across any gold worth while. Then they were to let a rope down to him and he'd send up the treasure. It was a great scheme, but they never got a chance to try it. If he ever gave any signal they never heard it, for down there a man's voice strained to its shrillest would be no more than a whisper against a tornado. You can believe that, can't you, from the way it roars and tears around out here?"
"All the gold that remains unmined wouldn't tempt me a hundred feet down that black throat," she shuddered. "But what became of the adventurer with the scheme?"
"He came through in time—they caught him at the outlet over there in the mountains. The one pocket that remained in his shredded clothing was full of gold nuggets, they say. So he must have found it, even if he couldn't make them hear."
"What a dismal end for any man!"
"A man could beat it, though," said he, leaning forward in thoughtful attitude. "He'd need a strong light, and moccasins, so he could cling to the rocks. I believe it could be done, and I've thought a good deal about exploring it myself for a day or two past. If I don't draw a low number I think I'll tackle it."
"Don't you attempt it!" she cried, clutching his arm and turning her white face to him affrightedly. "Don't you ever dare try it!"
He laughed uneasily, his eyes on the black gash into which the foaming river darted.
"Oh, I don't know; I've heard of men doing riskier things than that for money," he returned.
Agnes Horton's excitement and concern seemed to pass with his words. She propped her chin in her palms and sat pensively, looking at the broken waters which reared around the barrier of scattered stones in its channel.
"Yes, men sometimes take big risks for money—even the risk of honor and the everlasting happiness of others," said she.
It was like the wind blowing aside a tent-flap as he passed, giving him a glimpse of its intimate interior. That little lifting of her reserve was a glance into the sanctuary of her heart. The melancholy of her eyes was born out of somebody's escapade with money; he was ready to risk his last guess on that.
"Besides, there may be nothing to that story of nuggets. That may be just one of these western yarns," she added.
"Well, in any case, there's the five hundred the Denver paper offers, besides what I could make by syndicating the account of my adventure among the Sunday papers. I used to do quite a lot of that when I was in college."
"But you don't need money badly enough to go into that place after it. Nobody ever needed it that badly," she declared.
"Don't I?" he answered, a little biting of bitter sarcasm in his tone. "Well, you don't know, my lady, how easy that money looks to me compared to my ordinary channels of getting it."
"It can't be so very hard in your profession," she doubted, as if a bit offended by his attitude of martyrdom before an unappreciative world. "I don't believe you have half as hard a time of it as some who have too much money."
"The hardship of having too much money is one which I never experienced, so I can't say as to that," he said, moved to smiles by the humor of it. "But to understand what I mean by hardship you must know how I've struggled in the ruts and narrow traditions of my profession, and fought, hoped, and starved. Why, I tell you that black hole over there looks like an open door with a light inside of it compared to some of the things I've gone through in the seven years that I've been trying to get a start. Money? I'll tell you how that is, Miss Horton; I've thought along that one theme so confounded long that it's worn a groove in my brain.
"Here you see me tonight, a piece of driftwood at thirty-five, and all for the want of money enough to buy an automobile and take the darned-fool world by storm on its vain side! You can't scratch it with a diamond on its reasoning side—I've scratched away on it until my nails are gone.
"I've failed, I tell you, I've botched it all up! And just for want of money enough to buy an automobile! Brains never took a doctor anywhere—nothing but money and bluff!"
"I wonder," she speculated, "what will become of you out here in this raw place, where the need of a doctor seems to be the farthest thing in the world, and you with your nerve all gone?"
It would have reassured her if she could have seen the fine flush which this charge raised in his face. But she didn't even look toward him, and couldn't have noted the change if she had, for the moonlight was not that bright, even in Wyoming.
"But I haven't lost my nerve!" he denied warmly.
"Oh, yes, you have," she contradicted, "or you wouldn't admit that you're a failure, and you wouldn't talk about money that way. Money doesn't cut much ice as long as you've got nerve."
"That's all right from your view," said he pettishly. "But you've had easy going of it, out of college into a nice home, with a lot of those pink-faced chaps to ride you around in their automobiles, and opera and plays and horse-shows and all that stuff."
"Perhaps," she admitted, a soft sadness in her voice. "But wait until you've seen somebody drunk with the passion of too much money and crazy with the hunger for more; wait until you've seen a man's soul grow black from hugging it to his heart, and his conscience atrophy and his manhood wither. And then when it rises up and crushes him, and all that are his with it——"
He looked at her curiously, waiting for her to round it out with a personal citation. But she said no more.
"That's why you're here, hoping like the rest of us to draw Number One?"
"Any number up to six hundred will do for me," she laughed, sitting erect once more and seeming to shake her bitter mood off as she spoke.
"And what will you do with it? Sell out as soon as the law allows?"
"I'll live on it," dreamily, as if giving words to an old vision which she had warmed in her heart. "I'll stay there and work through the hope of summer and the bleakness of winter, and make a home. I'll smooth the wild land and plant trees and green meadows, and roses by the door, and we'll stay there and it will be—home!"
"Yes," he nodded, understanding the feeling better than she knew. "You and mother; you want it just that way."
"How did you know it was mother?" she asked, turning to him with a quick, appreciative little start.
"You're the kind of a woman who has a mother," he answered. "Mothers leave their stamp on women like you."
"Thank you," said she.
"I've often wanted to run away from it that way, too," he owned, "for failure made a coward of me more than once in those hard years. There's a prospect of independence and peace in the picture you make with those few swift strokes. But I don't see any—you haven't put any—any—man in it. Isn't there one somewhere?"
"No," simply and frankly; "there isn't any man anywhere. He doesn't belong in the picture, so why should I draw him in?"
Dr. Slavens sighed.
"Yes; I've wanted to run away from it more than once."
"That's because you've lost your nerve," she charged. "You shouldn't want to run away from it—a big, broad man like you—and you must not run away. You must stay and fight—and fight—and fight! Why, you talk as if you were seventy instead of a youth of thirty-five!"
"Don't rub it in so hard on that failure and nerve business," he begged, ashamed of his hasty confession.
"Well, you mustn't talk of running away then. There are no ghosts after you, are there?"
The moonlight was sifting through the loose strands of her gleaming hair as she sat there bareheaded at his side, and the strength of his life reached out to her, and the deep yearning of his lonely soul. He knew that he wanted that woman out of all the world full of women whom he had seen and known—and passed. He knew that he wanted her with such strong need that from that day none other could come across the mirror of his heart and dim her image out of it.
Simply money would not win a woman like her; no slope-headed son of a ham factory could come along and carry her off without any recommendation but his cash. She had lived through that kind of lure, and she was there on his own level because she wanted to work out her clean life in her own clean way. The thought warmed him. Here was a girl, he reflected, with a piece of steel in her backbone; a girl that would take the world's lashings like a white elm in a storm, to spring resiliently back to stately poise after the turmoil had passed. Trouble would not break her; sorrow would only make her fineness finer. There was a girl to stand up beside a man!
He had not thought of it before—perhaps he had been too melancholy and bitter over his failure to take by storm the community where he had tried to make his start—but he believed that he realized that moment what he had needed all along. If, amid the contempt and indifference of the successful, he'd had some incentive besides his own ambition to struggle for all this time, some splendid, strong-handed woman to stand up in his gloom like the Goddess of Liberty offering an ultimate reward to the poor devils who have won their way to her feet across the bitter seas from hopeless lands, he might have stuck to it back there and won in the end.
"That's what I've needed," said he aloud, rising abruptly.
She looked up at him quickly.
"I've needed somebody's sympathy, somebody's sarcasm, somebody's soft hand—which could be correctional on occasion—and somebody's heart-interest all along," he declared, standing before her dramatically and flinging out his hands in the strong feeling of his declaration. "I've been lonely; I've been morose. I've needed a woman like you!"
Without sign of perturbation or offense, Agnes rose and laid her hand gently upon his arm.
"I think, Dr. Slavens," she suggested, "we'd better be going back to camp."
They walked the mile back to camp with few words between them. The blatant noises of Comanche grew as they drew nearer.
The dance was still in progress; the others had not returned to camp.
"Do you care to sit out here and wait for them?" he asked as they stopped before the tent.
"I think I'll go to bed," she answered. "I'm tired."
"I'll stand sentry," he offered.
She thanked him, and started to go in. At the door she paused, went back to him, and placed her hand in her soothing, placid way upon his arm again.
"You'll fight out the good fight here," said she, "for this is a country that's got breathing-room in it."
She looked up into his face a bit wistfully, he thought, as if there were more in her heart than she had spoken. "You'll win here—I know you'll win."
He reached out to put his arm about her, drawn by the same warm attraction that had pulled the words from him at the riverside. The action was that of a man reaching out to lean his weary weight upon some familiar object, and there was something of old habit in it, as if he had been doing it always.
But she did not stay. He folded only moonlight, in which there is little substance for a strong man, even in Wyoming. Dr. Slavens sighed as the tent-flap dropped behind her.
"Yes; that's what I've needed all the time," said he.
He sat outside with his pipe, which never had seemed so sweet. But, for all of its solace, he was disturbed by the thought that perhaps he had made a blunder which had placed him in a false light with Miss Horton—only he thought of her as Agnes, just as if he had the right. For there were only occasions on which Dr. Slavens admitted himself to be a fizzle in the big fireworks of the world. That was a charge which he sometimes laid to himself in mortification of spirit, or as a flagellant to spur him along the hard road. He had not meant to let it slip him aloud over there by the river, because he didn't believe it at all—at least not in that high-hoping hour.
So he sat there in the moonlight before the tent, the noises of the town swelling louder and louder as the night grew older, his big frame doubled into the stingy lap of a canvas chair, his knees almost as high as his chin. But it was comfortable, and his tobacco was as pleasant to his senses as the distillation of youthful dreams.
He had not attained the automobile stage of prosperity and arrogance, certainly. But that was somewhere ahead; he should come to it in time. Out of the smoke of his pipe that dreamy night he could see it. Perhaps he might be a little gray at the temples when he came to it, and a little lined at the mouth, but there would be more need of it then than now, because his legs would tire more easily.
But Agnes had taken that foolishly blurted statement for truth. So it was his job henceforward to prove to Agnes that he was not bankrupt in courage. And he meant to do it he vowed, even if he had to get a tent and hang out his shingle in Comanche. That would take nerve unquestionably, for there were five doctors in the place already, none of them making enough to buy stamps to write back home for money.
Already, he said, he was out of the rut of his despondency; already the rust was knocked off his back, and the eagerness to crowd up to the starting-line was on him as fresh again as on the day when he had walked away from all competitors in the examination for a license before the state board.
At midnight the others came back from the dance and broke the trend of his smoke-born dreams. Midnight was the hour when respectable Comanche put out its lights and went to bed. Not to sleep in every case, perhaps, for the din was at crescendo pitch by then; but, at any event, to deprive the iniquitous of the moral support of looking on their debaucheries and sins.
Dr. Slavens was in no mood for his sagging canvas cot, for his new enthusiasm was bounding through him as if he had been given an intravenous injection of nitroglycerin. There was Wyoming before him, all white and virginal and fresh, a big place for a big deed. Certainly, said Dr. Slavens. Just as if made to order for his needs.
So he would look around a bit before turning in, with his high-stepping humor over him, and that spot on his arm, where her hand had lain, still aglow with her mysterious fire.
THE FLAT-GAME MAN
The noises of the tented town swelled in picturesque chorus as Dr. Slavens walked toward them, rising and trailing off into the night until they wore themselves out in the echoless plain.
He heard the far-away roll and rumble of voices coming from the gambling-tents; the high-tenor invitation of the barkers outside questionable shows; the bawl of street-gamblers, who had all manner of devices, from ring-pitching to shell-games on folding tables, which they could pick up in a twinkling and run away with when their dupes began to threaten and rough them up; the clear soprano of the singer, who wore long skirts and sang chaste songs, in the vaudeville tent down by the station.
And above all, mingled with all—always, everywhere—the brattle of cornet and trombone, the whang of piano, the wail of violin, the tinkle of the noble harp, an aristocrat in base company, weeping its own downfall.
All of the flaring scene appeared to the doctor to be extremely artificial. It was a stage set for the allurement of the unsophisticated, who saw in this strained and overdone imitation of the old West the romance of their expectations. If they hadn't found it there thousands of them would have been disappointed, perhaps disillusioned with a healthful jolt. All the reality about it was its viciousness, and that was unquestionable.
It looked as if gambling crooks from everywhere had collected at Comanche, and as if the most openly and notoriously crooked of them all was the bony, dry-faced man with a white spot over the sight of his left eye, who conducted a dice-game in the front part of the chief amusement-place of the town. This was a combination variety theater and saloon, where free "living pictures" were posed for the entertainment of those who drank beer at the tables at twenty-five cents a glass.
Of the living pictures there were three, all of them in green garments, which hung loosely upon flaccid thighs. Sometimes they posed alone, as representations of more or less clothed statuary; sometimes they grouped, with feet thrust out, heads thrown back, arms lifted in stiff postures, as gladiators, martyrs, and spring songs. Always, whether living or dead, they were most sad and tattered, famished and lean pictures, and their efforts were received with small applause. They were too thin to be very wicked; so it appeared, at least.
Dr. Slavens stopped in the wide-spreading door of this place to watch the shifting life within. Near him sat a young Comanche Indian, his hair done up in two braids, which he wore over his shoulders in front. He had an eagle feather in his hat and a new red handkerchief around his neck, and he looked as wistful as a young Indian ever did outside a poem or a picture-film. He was the unwelcome guest, whom no one might treat, to whom no one might sell.
That was one of the first things strangers in Comanche learned: one must not give an Indian a drink of liquor, no matter how thirsty he looked. And, although there was not a saloon-keeper in the place who would have considered a moment before stooping to rob a dead man, there was not one who would have sold an Indian a bottle of beer. Such is the fear, if not respect, that brave old Uncle Sam is able to inspire.
But brave old Sam had left the bars down between his wards and the gamblers' tables. It is so everywhere. The Indian may not drink, but he may play "army game" and all the others where crooked dice, crooked cards, and crooked men are to be found. Perhaps, thought the doctor, the young man with the eagle feather—which did not make him at all invisible, whatever his own faith in its virtues might have been—had played his money on the one-eyed man's game, and was hanging around to see whether retributive justice, in the form of some more fortunate player, would, in the end, clean the old rascal out.
The one-eyed man was assisted by a large gang of cappers, a gang which appeared to be in the employ of the gamblers' trust of Comanche. The doctor had seen them night after night first at one game, then at another, betting with freedom and carelessness which were the envy of the suckers packed forty deep around them. At the one-eyed man's game just then they were coming and going in a variety which gave a color of genuine patronage. That was an admirable arrangement, doubtless due to the one-eyed man's sagacity, which the doctor had noted the night before. For the game had its fascination for him, not because the fire of it was in his veins, but because it was such an out-and-out skin game that it was marvelous how fools enough could be found, even in a gathering like that, to keep it going.
The living pictures had just passed off the stage, and it was the one-eyed man's inning. He rattled his dice in the box, throwing his quick glance over the crowd, which seemed reluctant to quit the beer-tables for his board. Art was the subject which the gambler took up as he poured out his dice and left them lying on the board. He seemed so absorbed in art for the moment that he did not see a few small bets which were laid down. He leaned over confidentially and talked into the eyes of the crowd.
"Art, gentlemen, is a fine thing for the human race," said he. "You have just saw an elegant exhibition of art, and who is there in this crowd that don't feel a better man for what he saw?"
He looked around, as if inviting a challenge. None came. He resumed:
"Art in all its branches is a elegant fine thing, gentlemen. It raises a man up, and it elevates him, and it makes him feel like a millionaire. If I only had a dime, as the man said, I'd spend it for a box of cigareets just to git the chromo-card. That's what I think of art, gentlemen, and that's how crazy I am over it.
"Now, if anybody here wants to bet me I ain't got two eyes, I ain't a goin' to take him up, for I know I ain't, gentlemen, and I've knowed it for thirty years. But if anybody wants to bet me I can't throw twenty-seven——"
This was the one-eyed man's game. He stood inside the curve of a crescent-shaped table, which struck him almost under the arms, his back to the wall of the tent. Players could surround him, almost; still, nobody could get behind him. In that direction there always was a way out. He stood there offering odds of five to one to anybody who wanted to bet him that he couldn't himself, with his own hand and his own dice, throw twenty-seven. Any other number coming out of the box, the one-eyed man lost.
Examine the dice, gents; examine the box. If any gent had any doubts at all about the dice being straight, all he had to do was to examine them. There they lay, gents, honestly and openly on the table before the one-eyed man, his bony hand hovering over them caressingly.
Gents examined them freely. Nearly every player who put money down—secure in that egotistical valuation of one's own shrewdness which is the sure-thing-man's bank and goldmine and mint—rolled the dice, weighed them, eyed them sharply. Then they bet against the one-eyed man—and lost.
That is, they lost if he wanted them to lose. There were victims who looked promising for a fat sacrifice who had to be tolled and primed and led on gently up to the block. At the right time the one-eyed man trimmed them, and he trimmed them down to the short bones.
His little boost for art finished—for the living pictures were art in which he had a proprietary interest, and he could afford to talk for it once in a while—the one-eyed man cast his glance over his table and saw the small bets. By some singular fortune all of the bettors won. They pocketed their winnings with grins as they pushed out among the gathering crowd.
Men began to pack thickly around the gambler's crescent table, craning over shoulders to see what was going on. He was making a great Wild-West show of money, with a large revolver lying beside it at his elbow. Seeing that the young man who had carried June Reed off to the dance so intrepidly had made his way forward and was betting on the game, Dr. Slavens pushed up to the table and stood near.
The young fellow did not bear himself with the air of a capper, but rather with that of one who had licked a little poison and was drunk on the taste. He had won two small bets, and he was out for more.
There were no chips, no counters except cash. Of that the young man appeared to have plenty. He held a cheerful little wad of it in his hand, so that no time might be lost in taking advantage of the great opportunity to beat a man at his own game.
The display of so much money on both sides held the crowd in silent charm. The young man was the only player, although the one-eyed man urged others to come on and share the fortunes of his sweating patron, whose face was afire with the excitement of easy money, and whose reason had evaporated under the heat.
"At every roll of the dice my young friend adds to his pile," said the gambler. "He's got a head, gents, and he knows how to use it. Look at 'im, gents, gittin' richer at every roll of the dice! You might as well have a share in all this here money and wealth, and you would be sharin' it if you had the nerve of my young friend."
The one-eyed man turned the dice out and lost again. There was a little movement of the crowd, a little audible intaking of breath, a little crowding forward, like that of cattle massed in a pen.
The suckers never did seem to get it through their heads, thought the doctor as he beheld their dumb excitement with growing contempt, that the one-eyed man switched the dice on them just as often as he pleased between the table and the box, by a trick which was his one accomplishment and sole capital. Without that deftness of hand the one-eyed man might have remained a bartender, and a very sloppy and indifferent one at that; but with it he was the king-pin of the gamblers' trust in Comanche, and his graft was the best in the town.
"There it goes, gents!" he said, shaking his long, hound-shaped head with doleful expression of face. "The tide of luck's turned ag'in' me. You can see that as plain as water in a pan, but they ain't one of you got the nerve to step up and help my young friend trim me.
"You fellers know what you make me think of? Well, you make me think of a lot of little boys with ten cents to spend on Fourth of July. You stand around with your fingers in your mouth, afraid you'll see somethin' you like better if you let loose of your little old dime, and you hang on to it till the fun's all over and the ice-cream's all gone.
"But my young friend here—Now, now!" he remonstrated as the highly excited young man took up his winnings, added them to the money which he held in reserve in his left hand, and placed the whole amount upon the table. "Now you're a comin' it purty strong! Go easy, young feller, and give a old man with only one eye and a game leg a chance. But you won't do it; I can see that in the cast of your eye; you're bound to clean me out at one smack; that's what you're bound to do."
The one-eyed man shook the dicebox very carefully, as if mixing some rare prescription. Then he stopped shaking and held his hand over the mouth of the box, as if he expected the cubes might jump up and join in his ruination while his head was turned.
"Now, look-a here!" said he, addressing them generally. "I've traveled this wide world over ever since I was a tender child, as the man said, and I never seen a chance like this to skin a feller slide by without more'n one lone man havin' sense enough and nerve enough to git in on it.
"Do I see any more of your money, gents, before I roll the dice? Do I see any more of your money of the ream and dominion of Uncle Sam, with the eagle a spreadin' his legs, with his toes full of arrers, and his mouth wide open a hollerin' de-fiance and destruction ag'in' his innimies on land and sea, wheresomever they may be, as the feller said?
"Do I see any more of your money, gents? Do I git sight of any more? Lowest bet's one dollar, gents, and you might as well git in on the finish and let the old man go up with a whoop. I'm game, gents; I go the limit. Do I see any more of your money? Do I see any more?"
He did. He saw considerably more than he had seen at one time since he opened the game in Comanche. He seemed greatly affected by the sight, shaking his head with solemnity and casting his eye around with reproach.
"That's right! That's right!" said he. "Sock it to a old feller when you've got him down! That's the way of this cold world. Well, all I ask of you, gents"—he paused in his request to shake the box again, holding it poised for the throw—"is this: When you clean me I ask you to stake me, between you, to twenty-seven dollars. Twenty-seven's my lucky number; I was borned on the 27th day of Jannewarry, and I always bet on twenty-seven."
He poured the dice upon the table, reaching for his pile of bills and gold as if to cash in on the winnings as he set the box down, even while the dice were rolling and settling. But at that point the one-eyed man stayed his hand, bending over the dice as if he could not believe his eye.
"Well, bust me!" said he, sighing as if honestly disappointed in the throw. "M' luck's turned! Dang me, fellers, if I didn't win!"
Without enthusiasm, still shaking his head sadly, he drew the winnings over the table, sorting the bills, shuffling them into neat heaps, adding them to his enticing pile, which lay heaped upon a green cloth at his hand.
"I don't know why I stick to this game, gents," said he, "for it's all ag'in' me. I don't win once in nine hundred times. This here's more money than I've took in at any one time since I come to Comanche, and it's more'n I ever expect to take in ag'in if I stay here forty-nine years.
"But it's in m' blood to bet on twenty-seven. I can't help it, boys. It'll be the ruination of me ag'in, like it's ruined me many a time before; but I got to roll 'em! I got to roll 'em! And if anybody wants to git in, let him put his money down!"
The young man seemed a little dazed by the quick change of the gambler's luck, but his reason had no voice to speak against the clamor of his desires. He produced more money, bills of large denomination, and counted out a thousand dollars, defiantly flourishing every bill. He whacked the pile down on the table with a foolishly arrogant thump of his fist.
"I'm with you to the finish," he said, his boyish face bright with the destructive fire of chance. "Roll 'em out!"
Other players crowded forward, believing perhaps that the queer freak of fortune which had turned the gambler's luck would not hold. In a few minutes there was more money on the table than the one-eyed man had stood before in many a day.
Sorry for the foolish young man, and moved by the sacrifice which he saw in preparation, Dr. Slavens pressed against the table, trying to flash the youth a warning with his eyes. But the physician could not get a look into the young man's flushed face; his eyes were on the stake.
The one-eyed man was gabbing again, running out a continual stream of cheap and pointless talk, and offering the dice as usual for inspection. Some looked at the cubes, among the number the young man, who weighed them in his palm and rolled them on the table several times. Doubtless they were as straight as dice ever were made. This test satisfied the rest. The one-eyed man swept the cubes into his hand and, still talking, held that long, bony member hovering over the mouth of the box.
At that moment Dr. Slavens, lurching as if shoved violently from behind, set his shoulder against the table and pushed it, hard and suddenly, against the one-eyed man's chest, all but throwing him backward against the wall of the tent. The gambler's elbows flew up in his struggle to keep to his feet, and the hand that hovered over the dicebox dropped the dice upon the board.
Instantly a shout went up; instantly half a hundred hands clawed at the table to retrieve their stakes. For the one-eyed man had dropped not five dice, but ten.
He waited for no further developments. The tent-wall parted behind him as he dived through into the outer darkness, taking with him his former winnings and his "bank," which had been cunningly arranged on the green cloth for no other purpose; his revolver and his dice, leaving nothing but the box behind.
The young man gathered up his stake with nervous hands and turned his flushed face to the doctor, smiling foolishly.
"Thank you, old man," he said. "Oh, yes! I know you now," he added, offering his hand with great warmth. "You were with her people at the dance."
"Of course," smiled the doctor. "How much did you lose?"
"Say, I ought to have a nurse!" said the young man abjectly. "If you hadn't heaved that table into the old devil's ribs just then he'd 'a' skinned me right! Oh, about six hundred, I guess; but in ten minutes more he'd 'a' cleaned me out. Walker's my name," he confided; "Joe Walker. I'm from Cheyenne."
Dr. Slavens introduced himself.
"And I'm from Missouri," said he.
Joe Walker chuckled a little.
"Yes; the old man's from there, too," said he, with the warmth of one relative claiming kinship with another from far-away parts; "from a place called Saint Joe. Did you ever hear of it?"
"I've heard of it," the doctor admitted, smiling to himself over the ingenuous unfolding of the victim whom he had snatched from the sacrifice.
"They don't only have to show you fellers from Missouri," pursued Walker; "but you show them! That's the old man's way, from the boot-heels up."
They were walking away from the gambling-tent, taking the middle of the road, as was the custom in Comanche after dark, sinking instep deep in dust at every step.
"What are you doing with all that money in a place like this?" the doctor questioned.
"Well, it's this way," explained Walker with boyish confidence. "The old man's going to set me up in a sheep-ranch between here and Casper. We've got a ranch bargained for with six miles of river-front, he sent me over here with five thousand dollars to cinch the business before the feller changed his mind."
"Why didn't you bring a draft?" the doctor wondered.
"Some of these sheepmen wouldn't take government bonds. Nothing but plain cash goes with them."
"Oh, I didn't think you had any particular use for even that, the way you're slinging it around!" said the doctor, with no attempt to hide the feeling he held for any such recklessness.
"Looked that way," admitted Walker thoughtfully. "But I've got to meet that sheepman here at the bank in the morning, where he can have somebody that he's got confidence in feel of the money and tell him it's genuine, and I'll have to put up some kind of a stall to cover the money I lost. Guess I can get away with it, somehow. Cripes! I sweat needles every time I think of what'd 'a' happened to me if you hadn't showed us suckers that one-eyed feller's hand!"
"Well, the important thing now, it seems to me, is to hang on to what's left till you meet that rancher."
"Don't you worry!" rejoined Walker warmly. "I'm going to sit on the edge of that little old bunk all night with my six-shooter in one hand and that money in the other! And any time in future that you see me bettin' on any man's game, you send for the fool-killer, will you?"
"Yes, if I happen to be around," promised the doctor.
"I ought to know 'em; I was raised right here in Wyoming among 'em," said Walker. "I thought that feller was square, or maybe off a little, because he talked so much. He was the first talkin' gambler I ever met."
"Talk is his trick," Slavens enlightened him. "That was old Hun Shanklin, the flat-game man. I've looked him up since I got here. He plays suckers, and nothing but suckers. No gambler ever bets on Hun Shanklin's game. He talks to keep their eyes on his face while he switches the dice."
Walker was gravely silent a little while, like a man who has just arrived at the proper appreciation of some grave danger which he has escaped.
"I've heard of Hun Shanklin a long time, but I never saw him before," he said. "He's killed several men in his time. Do you suppose he knows you shoved his table, or does he think somebody back of you pushed you against it?"
"I don't suppose he needs anybody to tell him how it happened," replied the doctor a little crabbedly.
"Of course I've got my own notion of it, old feller," prattled Walker; "but they were purty thick around there just then, and shovin' a good deal. I hope he thinks it happened that way. But I know nobody shoved you, and I'm much obliged."
"Oh, forget it!" snapped Slavens, thinking of the six hundred dollars which had flown out of the young fellow's hand so lightly. Once he could have bought a very good used automobile for four hundred.
"But don't you suppose—" Walker lowered his voice to a whisper, looking cautiously around in the dark as he spoke—"that you stand a chance to hear from Hun Shanklin again?"
"Maybe," answered Slavens shortly. "Well, here's where I turn off. I'm stopping at the Metropole down here."
Walker caught his arm appealingly.
"Between you and me I don't like the looks of that dump where I've got a bed. You've been here longer than I have; do you know of any place where a man with all this blamed money burnin' his hide might pull through till morning with it if he happened to slip a cog and go to sleep?"
"There's a spare cot in our tent," said the doctor, "and you're welcome to it if you feel that you can trust yourself in our company. We mess together in a sort of communistic fashion."
Walker was profuse in his gratitude.
"I'll feel easy among decent people!" he declared. "I'm mostly decent myself, and my family's one of the best in this state. Don't you size me up by what you saw me do tonight, will you?"
"The best of us slip up once in a while," Slavens said.
Walker had some business of clearing his throat. And then:
"Are you—that is—is she, related to you?"
"Oh, no," laughed the doctor. "I'm sorry she isn't."
"She's a peach; don't you think so?"
"Undoubtedly," admitted the doctor. "Well, here we are—at home."
They stood outside a little while, their faces turned toward the town. It was quieting down now. Here and there a voice was raised in drunken song or drunken yelp; here and there a pistol-shot marked the location of some silly fellow who believed that he was living and experiencing all the recklessness of the untamed West. Now and then the dry, shrill laughter of a woman sounded, without lightness, without mirth, as if it came from the lips of one who long, long ago, in the fever of pain and despair, had wept her heart empty of its tears. Now and again, also, a wailing cornet lifted its lone voice, dying away dimly like a disappearing light.
"The wolves are satisfied for one night; they've stopped howling," the doctor said.
There remained but one day until chance should settle the aspirations of the dusty thousands who waited in Comanche; one day more would see Claim Number One allotted for selection to some more or less worthy American citizen.
The young man, Walker, had been received on a footing of fellowship into the commune of the circus-tent. He said that he had concluded happily the arrangements for the purchase of the sheep-ranch, and that he intended to go and take possession of it in a few days. Meantime, he appeared to be considerably shot up over June. In spite of Mrs. Reed's frowns, he hung around her like a hornet after a soft pear.
There was considerable excitement in the camp of the communists that morning, owing to preparations which were going forward for an excursion over the land where somebody's Number One lay shrouded in green greasewood and gray sage. For this important occasion Walker had engaged the most notable stage-driver in that part of the country, whose turn it was that day to lie over from the run between Comanche and Meander.
The party was to use his stage also, and carry lunch along, and make a grand day of it along the river, trying for trout if conditions held favorable. Smith was the name of the driver.
Smith was smiling like a baker as he drove up, for Smith could not behold ladies without blushing and smiling. Smith had the reputation of being a terror to holdup men. Also, the story was current in Comanche that he had, in a bare-handed, single encounter with a bear, choked the animal to death. There was some variance over the particulars as to the breed of bear, its color, age, size, and weight. Some—and they were the unromantic, such as habitually lived in Wyoming and kept saloons—held that it was a black cub with a broken back; others that it was a cinnamon bear with claws seven inches long; while the extremists would be satisfied with nothing short of a grizzly which stood five feet four at the shoulders and weighed eighteen hundred pounds!
But, no matter what romance had done for Smith, it could not overdo his ancient, green vehicle, with the lettering,
BIG HORN VALLEY
along its side near the roof. It was a Concord stage, its body swinging on creaking straps. It had many a wound of arrowhead in its tough oak, and many a bullet-hole, all of which had been plugged with putty and painted over long years ago for the assurance and comfort of nervous passengers, to whom the evidence of conflict might have been disturbing.
Now that there was no longer any reason for concealment, the owners had allowed the paint to crumble and the putty to fall away, baring the veteran's scars. These were so thick that it seemed a marvel that anybody who took passage in it in those perilous days escaped. In a sun-cracked and time-curled leather holster tacked to the seat at Smith's right hand, a large revolver with a prodigious black handle hung ready for the disciplining of bandits or bears, as they might come across Smith's way.