HotFreeBooks.com
Desert Conquest - or, Precious Waters
by A. M. Chisholm
1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

DESERT CONQUEST

Or

Precious Waters

by

A. M. CHISHOLM

Author of The Boss of Wind River, Etc.

Illustrated by Clarence Rowe



New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers

Copyright, 1913, by Doubleday, Page & Company All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian

Copyright, 1912, 1913, by Street & Smith, Publishers



DESERT CONQUEST

or

PRECIOUS WATERS



CHAPTER I

Miss Nita Hess flattened a snub nose against the Pullman window, and stared at the expressionless face of the plains with an avidity to be explained only by the fact that her acquaintance with them up to then had been principally through the medium of light literature perused surreptitiously in a select school for young ladies in the extreme East. But her remarks from time to time would have shocked the ultra-correct preceptresses of that excellent seat of learning.

"Oh, gee, Clyde," she exclaimed suddenly, "look at the cute little deer! Oh, see 'em scoot!"

Her companion glanced from the window, and stifled a yawn. "Antelope," she commented, without interest. "Yes, I see them, Nita," and leaned back again, closing her eyes.

In fact, Miss Clyde Burnaby was bored by the journey, and a little—a very little—by her fifteen-year-old cousin, daughter of the celebrated James C. Hess, of the equally celebrated Hess Railway System. Nita was a good little girl, and a nice little girl—in spite of occasional lingual lapses—but only a sense of duty to dear old Uncle Jim had induced Clyde to forego her European trip that she might accompany Nita to the Pacific coast for the benefit of that young lady's health, which Clyde privately considered as sound as the national currency system.

In a democratic moment she had refused Hess' offer of a private car, and she now rather regretted it. She had a headache, and the great coils of red-gold hair seemed to weigh tons. It would have been a relief to have it taken down and brushed by a deft-fingered maid. But the maid also had been left behind. And that, she decided, was a mistake, also.

Clyde Burnaby was alone in the world. Her father's modest fortune, under the able management of his executor, Jim Hess, had expanded wonderfully. So far as money was concerned, no reasonable wish of hers need remain ungratified. She was accomplished, travelled, and very good-looking. She had refused half a dozen offers of hands, hearts, and fortunes—the latter equal to her own—and also two titles unaccompanied by fortunes, with hearts as doubtful collateral. She kept her own bachelor establishment in Chicago, gave to charity with discretion, took a quiet part in the social life of her set, dabbled in art and literature, had a few good friends, and was generally considered a very lucky, amiable, and handsome young woman.

But just then she was bored with the trip and with Nita, whose enthusiasms she could not share. The heat of the Pullman seemed stifling, the odour of coal unbearable. The land was dead-brown, flat, dreary, monotonous. Leaning back with closed eyes, she longed for the deck of a liner, the strong, salt breezes, the steady pulse of the engines—even for cold rain from a gray sky, sullen, shouldering seas, and the whip of spindrift on her cheeks. Beside her Nita prattled steadily.

"We're going to stop, Clyde. Here's a station. Look at the yard with all the cows in it. I wonder if those men are cowboys. They don't look like the pictures. But isn't it funny how those ponies stand with the reins hanging down and not tied at all? I wish my pony would stand that way. Here come two men on horseback. My, but they're riding fast! I wonder if they are trying to catch the train?"

Two blown ponies bore down on the station at a dead run. One of the riders jumped off and ran for the office. The other unstrapped a bundle, apparently mostly slicker, from his companion's saddle cantle. In a moment the first emerged. The energetic Nita had opened the window, and Clyde overheard their conversation.

"I'm shy my grip," said the first. "The agent doesn't know where she is, and I can't wait. Round up Rosebud soon as you can, and find out what's become of it."

The other swore frankly at Rosebud, who appeared to be an individual. "I'll bet he's drunk, somewheres. I'll express your war bag when I find it."

The engine bell clanged a warning, and the conductor shouted cryptically. The two men shook hands.

"So long, Joe," said the younger. "I've had a whale of a time. Come up to my country and see me next year. Come any old time. We'll bust things wide open for you."

The other grinned widely. "The missus ain't lettin' me range like I used to. So long. Keep sober, old-timer. Don't play none with strangers. Say, d'you remember the time when we——"

Clyde lost the remainder in the shudder and grind of the trucks as the coaches began to move. The two men disappeared from her field of vision. Nita closed the window. Once more she leaned back, resigning herself to the weariness of the journey.

But a moment afterward the man of the platform appeared at the end of the aisle, accompanied by the porter who carried his bundle. Instantly he became the cynosure of a battery of disapproving eyes.

For his apparel would have been more in place in the bare colonist cars of the first section than in the vestibuled, luxurious rear coaches of the second. From the battered and stained old pony hat on his head to the disreputable laced boots into which his trousers were shoved, he was covered with the gray dust of the plains. Apart from his costume and the top dressing of dust, he was tall, cleanly built, and evidently as hard as a wire nail. His hair missed red by the merest fraction, and his eyes were a clear blue, level and direct. He moved as lightly as a prowling animal, and he met the supercilious and disdainful glances of his fellow passengers with a half smile of amused comprehension.

The porter, with a deference betokening an unusually large advance tip, ushered him to a seat across the aisle from Clyde's. But the stranger, catching a glimpse of himself in the panel mirror, stopped suddenly. Instantly Clyde's nostrils were assailed by a strong odour of leather and horseflesh. She shuddered in spite of herself. It was the last straw. As a rule she was not overparticular, but just then she was in that state of nerves when little things fretted her. She said to herself that a cattle car was the proper place for this young man. As he spoke to the porter she listened resentfully, prepared to disapprove of anything he might say. Said he:

"Mistuh Washin'ton Jeffe'son Bones, look at me carefully. Do you see any dust upon my garments?"

"Yassuh, yassuh," chuckled the porter. "Don't see much else, suh."

"And could you—on a bet of about a dollar—undertake to put me in a condition not to damage the seats?"

"Yassuh; sho' could, suh!"

"Go to it, then," said the stranger. "I'm after you."

He did not return for an hour. Then he was noticeably cleaner, and the odour of horse was replaced by that of cigars, less objectionable to Clyde. As he took his seat he glanced at her frankly, a shade of drollery in his eye, as if he were quite aware of her disapproval, and was amused by it. She stiffened a trifle, ignoring him utterly. Not by a hair's breadth would she encourage this free-and-easy person.

For some hours she had been annoyed by the behaviour of a man several seats away. Whenever she had glanced in his direction he had been looking at her. Once he had smiled ingratiatingly. Clyde's life had not included first-hand experiences of this kind, but she was able to classify the man accurately. Still, there had been nothing definite to complain of. Now this individual arose and came down the aisle. In his hand was a book. He halted by her side.

"Beg pardon," said he. "Would you care to look at this?"

"No, thank you," she replied frigidly.

"It isn't bad," he persisted. "I'll leave it with you."

"Thank you, I don't want it," said Clyde. But nevertheless he dropped the volume in her lap, smiling offensively.

"Look it over," said he. "I'll get it later."

Paying no attention to her indignant refusal, he walked down the aisle to the smoking compartment. Clyde, a bright spot of anger on either cheek, turned to Nita.

"I think I shall speak to the conductor."

"It's because you're so pretty," said Nita, with an air of vast experience. "I've had the same thing, almost, happen to me. Back at college—in the town, I mean—there was a boy——But perhaps I'd better not say anything about it. He was very bold indeed!" She pursed her lips primly, but her eyes belied their expression.

"I beg your pardon," said the man across the aisle.

Once more Clyde froze indignantly. Never before had she felt the need of an escort in her travels. Never again, she told herself, would she travel alone with merely a fifteen-year-old kid for her sole companion. She honoured the new offender with a haughty stare. He smiled unaffectedly.

"Nothing like that," he disclaimed, as if he had read her thoughts. "I'll take that book if you don't want it. He can get it back from me."

He stretched a long arm across, and thanked her as she handed him the book mechanically. Forthwith he opened it, and began to read. And he was still absorbed in it when the donor returned.

That gentleman paused uncertainly beside Clyde, who was haughtily unconscious of his presence.

"Did you—er——" he began.

At that moment the man across the aisle twitched his coat sleeve. "Looking for the book you left with me?" he asked casually. "Here it is."

The other stared at him in uneasy surprise. "I didn't——"

"Oh, yes, you did," the man across the aisle interrupted. "Anyway, you meant to. You'll remember if you think a minute. You didn't leave it with that young lady, because you don't know her, and you're not the kind of man to butt in where you're not wanted. Now, are you?"

"Of course not," the other replied, with a show of indignation. "I don't know——"

"Then that's all right," said the stranger quietly. "Here's your book. And there's your seat. And don't make any more mistakes."

The gregarious gentleman accepted this advice and his book meekly. Thereafter he avoided even looking in Clyde's direction. To her relief the stranger did not presume on the service he had rendered. He stretched his long legs upon the opposite seat, leaned back, and gazed silently at the roof. The afternoon dragged on. Clyde and Nita went to the diner and returned. Afterward the stranger presumably did likewise, spending a decent interval in the smoker. Darkness fell, and the Limited thundered on westward across the plains to the country of the foothills, the mountain ranges, and its goal at the thither end of the Pacific slope.

Suddenly, with a scream of air and a grinding of brake shoes, the train came to a stop. Clyde looked out. The level, monotonous plains were no longer there. The country was rolling, studded with clumps of cottonwoods. The moon, close to the full, touched the higher spots with silver, intensifying the blackness of the shadows.

Clyde peered ahead to the limit of her restricted area of vision, for the lights of a station or a town. There was none. Not even the lighted square of a ranch-house window broke the night. Five minutes passed, ten, and still the train remained motionless. Suddenly, at the forward end of the coach, appeared the porter. Followed the occupants of the smoking compartment, each with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front of him in impromptu lockstep. Behind them came an apparition which caused the passengers, after a first gasp of incredulity, to vent their feelings in masculine oaths and little feminine screams of alarm.

This intruder was a large man, powerfully built. His hat was shoved back from his forehead, but his face was concealed by a square of dark cloth, cut with eyeholes. In his right hand he dandled with easy familiarity an exceedingly long-barrelled revolver. His left hand rested upon the twin of it, in a holster at his thigh. At his shoulder was another man, similarly masked.

"Everybody sit quiet!" the first commanded crisply. "Gents will hook their fingers on top of their heads, and keep them there. No call to be frightened, ladies, 'long's the men show sense. My partner will pass along the contribution bag. No holding out, and no talk. And just remember I'll get the first man that makes a move."

Clyde had joined in the gasp of surprise, but she had not screamed. Nita was trembling with excitement.

"I wouldn't have missed it for worlds!" the girl whispered. "Oh, Clyde, isn't he a duck of a holdup? Will there be shooting? Haven't any of these men got any nerve?"

Clyde became aware that the man in the seat opposite was speaking to her out of the corner of his mouth, his hands prudently crossed on his pate.

"If you have anything of special value—rings, watch, that sort of stuff—get rid of it. Put it on the floor if you can, and kick it under the seat ahead. Don't cache it in your own seat. Give him what money you have—that's what he wants. Tell the kid next you to do the same. And don't be nervous. You're as safe as if you were at home."

Clyde wore no rings. The few articles of jewellery she had brought with her were already safely concealed beyond the masculine ken of any mere train robber. But her watch was suspended around her neck by a thin gold chain. The watch could be detached, but the chain itself must be lifted over the head; and that would attract attention. To leave the chain would be to admit the existence of the watch. Without an instant's hesitation she tugged sharply. The frail links broke. Lowering the watch to the floor of the car, she shoved it forward with her foot.

Meanwhile the second masked man was making swift progress down the aisle. In his left hand was a gunny sack, in his right a formidable six-shooter. He was a gentleman of humorous turn, and he indulged in jocose remarks as he went, which, however, fell on an unappreciative audience. Because time pressed he did not attempt to skin each victim clean. He took what he could get, and passed on to the next; but he took everything in sight, and, moreover, each man was forced to turn his pockets inside out. This brought to light several pocket-edition firearms, which likewise went into the bag. With infinite humour he declared his intention of taking them home to his children. They were toys, he explained, with which the darlings could not hurt themselves.

"Thank you, miss," was his acknowledgment of the roll of bills which Clyde handed him. "You're sure an example to a lot o' these tinhorn sports. I reckon you got some pretty stones cached somewheres too, but I won't force your hand, seein's you've acted like a little lady. Just get up till I look at the seat. Now, partner"—he turned on the man across the aisle—"it's you to sweeten!"

That individual produced a very attenuated roll. "Sorry I can't go to the centre any stronger, old-timer. You've got me at the wrong end between pay days."

"Huh!" The holdup eyed him suspiciously. "Keep your hands stric'ly away from your pockets for a minute." He slapped them in quick succession. "No gun," said he, "and that's lucky for both of us, maybe. Business is business, partner, but I hate to set an old-timer afoot complete. Keep out about ten for smokes and grub."

"Yours truly," responded the other. "When you land in the calaboose for this racket I'll keep you in tobacco. What name shall I ask for?"

"If I land there you can ask for a damfool—and I'll answer the first time," laughed the holdup over his shoulder. "Next gent! Here's the little bag. Lady, keep your weddin' ring. You fat sport, stand up till I see what you're sittin' on. Why, was you tryin' to hatch out that bunch of money? I'll surely do that incubatin' myself."

He levied tribute swiftly, in spite of his badinage, and the gunny sack sagged heavier and heavier. As he reached the end, his companion, who had dominated the passengers with his gun, abandoned his position and came down the aisle. At the rear door he turned.

"Keep your seats till the train moves," he ordered harshly. "I'm layin' for the first man that sticks his head out of this car."

Behind him the coach buzzed like a disturbed hive. Its occupants bewailed their losses, vowed vengeance on both holdups and railway. Women reproached men with cowardice. Men told each other what they would have done if—— But not one attempted to leave his seat.

Nita turned to Clyde with sparkling eyes. "And now I've been in a holdup!" she exclaimed. "Won't that be a thing to tell the girls? Were you frightened, Clyde? I wasn't."

"I don't think so," Clyde replied. "I'm glad we saved our watches." The words recalled the man across the aisle. He was leaning back, listening to odd bits of conversation, a smile of amusement on his face. Clyde leaned across.

"I want to thank you," she said. "We should never have thought of hiding our watches."

He nodded pleasantly. "No, not likely. I hope you didn't lose much money. He left me ten dollars. I don't want to be misunderstood, but that's very much at your service until you can get more."

"And what shall you do—till pay day?" she asked, obeying a sudden mischievous impulse.

"Oh, I'll worry along," he replied. His long arm stretched across, and a ten-dollar bill fell in her lap.

"No, no," she said, "I was joking. I have plenty——"

She stopped suddenly. Somewhere toward the head of the train a revolver barked, and barked again. Then came a staccato fusillade.

Swiftly the man across the aisle reached for his bundle, tore it open, and plucked from it a long-barrelled, flat-handled, venomous automatic pistol and a box of cartridges. He slid out the clip, snapped it back, and went down the car in long pantherlike bounds, bending half double.

Up forward the shooting, which had ceased, began again. Suddenly there broke into it the voice of another weapon, rapid and sustained as the roll of an alarm clock. Other guns chimed in. A miniature battle seemed to be in progress. And then it died. An occasional shot came from the distance. Silence ensued.

Men whose curiosity got the better of prudence left the car and returned. The train robbers were gone. It was thought that two or three were wounded. It was the express messenger who had started the shooting. He had got loose, somehow, in his rifled car, got a gun from a drawer, and opened fire. He was shot through the shoulder. A brave fellow, that. The company should do something for him. Two others of the train crew were hit.

Clyde awaited the return of the man across the aisle. The train began to move, gathered way, and thundered on. Still he did not return. The porter began to make up the berths. To him she applied for information. He knew nothing. The conductor was in equal ignorance. Inquiries throughout the train were fruitless. The man of the seat across the aisle was not forthcoming. His few belongings, which threw no light on his identity, were gathered up to await his appearance. It was suggested, to Clyde's indignation, that he was an accomplice of the robbers, but in what manner was not clear.

And so Clyde Burnaby went on to the coast with ten dollars which she did not in the least need. She neither saw nor heard more of their owner; but, though it was unlikely she should meet him again, she kept the identical bill. On her return she tucked it away in a drawer in her writing desk; and when occasionally she noticed it there it was merely to wonder, with some self-reproach, how its owner had fared until the next pay day.



CHAPTER II

In a secluded corner of a certain club billiard room two middle-aged gentlemen padded around and around a table, and poked at balls. Both appeared bored by the amusement. Their skill was little, and their luck was rather less, so that a ball rarely found a pocket. Between strokes they carried on a conversation having to do with such light and frivolous topics as bond issues, guarantees thereof, sinking funds, haulage rates, and legal decisions and pending legislation affecting transportation. Or it might be more accurate to say that one endeavoured to engage the other in conversation on these esoteric matters, at which the other repeatedly shied, evincing a preference for those of more general human interest.

Not that he was uninformed on these topics. Quite the reverse. He was a rotund, florid little man, with twinkling, humorous eyes, which could bore like augers on occasion, and a mouth as firm and close as a steel trap. His name was William Bates Rapp, and his specialty was corporation law. He was counsel for the Western Airline Railway, and just then he was pretending to play billiards with its president, Cromwell York.

York, who also was pretending to play billiards with Rapp, was a dogged gentleman who was accustomed to take his pound of flesh whenever he could not obtain, on some pretext, two pounds. His subordinates said that he worked twenty-five hours a day, which gives, if you consider it, an advantage of some fifteen days per annum. He was in the grip of his business, body and soul. It fascinated him, dominated him more and more as the years went on, as his own fortune and his interests increased. He was continually reaching out for more territory, and in so doing he came in hostile contact with other railway men, also gunning for the same game. Occasionally, therefore, they gunned for each other. When York was hit he took his medicine; when he hit the other fellow he chose as vital a spot as he could. Even as he played billiards his mind was elsewhere, which accounted in part for his poor success at the game.

"Speaking about Prairie Southern," said he, "we have about decided to take it over."

Rapp sighed. "I'm not a perpetual-motion legal machine, York. Won't that keep till to-morrow?"

"We pay you a big enough retainer," said York, with the frankness of years of intimacy. "What do you suppose we do it for?"

"Principally, I imagine, to keep you out of jail," Rapp retorted, with equal frankness. "I've done it so far, but——" He shook his head forebodingly. "Well, if you will talk, come and sit down. I'm tired of this. Now, then, about Prairie Southern: have they come to the end of their rope, or did you pull it in a little for them?"

"I didn't need to," said York. "They have tied themselves up in hard knots. We don't particularly want the road; but, as matters stand, we can buy it cheaply. Later we might want it, and it would undoubtedly cost more. Besides, I don't want Hess to get hold of it as a feeder to his lines."

"Jim Hess is a sort of bugbear to you," said Rapp. "You'll keep prodding him till he horns you one of these days."

"Two can play at that," York replied grimly.

"There's mighty little play about Jim Hess when he goes on the warpath," Rapp commented. "Well, let's get the worst over. There's short of three hundred miles of this Prairie Southern, as I understand it. It runs somewhere near the foothills. The country doesn't grow anything yet. The only reason for its building was a coal-mine boom that petered out. Its bonding privilege was one of the most disgraceful bits of jobbery ever lobbied through a corrupt little legislature. It was a political scandal from its birth. It is burdened with a multitude of equities. It never has paid, and likely it never will pay. You know these things as well as I do. I'm hanged if I see why you want it."

"If we don't get it some one else will," said York. "I wish you'd look into their affairs, and see what sort of a legal bill of health they have. I am putting our accountants on their finances."

"All right," said Rapp. "I'll give 'em a bill of health like a pest-house record. Their bonded indebtedness is shocking, and they have all sorts of litigation pending against them."

"I'll tell you one thing," York said. "They have a large land grant."

"Which they got because the land was worthless."

"Supposed to be worthless," York amended.

Rapp cocked his head like a terrier that suddenly discerns a large and promising rat hole. "Come through," he said.

"This land," York explained, "is in the dry belt. It was supposed to be worth nothing when the P.S. charter was granted, and so the government of that day was generous with it. As a matter of fact, the land is good when irrigated; and it can be irrigated—or most of it can."

"How do you know it's any good?"

"There are some first-class ranches down there."

"If that is so, why don't P.S. put the lands on the market? They need the money."

"No advertising or selling machinery, and not enough money to put in an irrigation system, and no credit. They can't afford to wait."

Rapp considered. "Plenty of water for these lands?"

"That's a question," York admitted. "The main water down that way is a river called the Coldstream. The ranchers have their water records, which of course take precedence of any we might file. There may be enough—I don't know. That will have to be ascertained. But if this stuff can be irrigated it can be sold. Our land department will look after that."

"Almost any sort of an irrigated gold brick can be sold nowadays," said Rapp cynically. "I admit that you have some pretty fair con men in your land department."

"We never put anything on the market that wasn't a perfectly legitimate proposition," said York, with dignity.

"Depends on what you call 'legitimate,'" said Rapp. "I've read some of your land advertising. If you sold shares by means of a prospectus no more truthful, you'd do time for it. You know blame well you unload your stuff on people who depend on selected photographs and pretty pen pictures of annual yields per acre. Of course, any man who buys land without seeing it deserves exactly the sort of land he gets. I'm not criticising at all—merely pointing out that I know the rudiments of the game."

"Help us play it, then," said York. "Dig into Prairie Southern, and see what we get for our money."

William Bates Rapp did so. By various complicated and technical documents he grafted the moribund Prairie Southern upon the vigorous trunk of Western Airline, after which he washed his hands of the operation by a carefully worded letter accompanying a huge bill of costs, and dismissed the matter from his mind; for it was only one transaction among a score of more important ones.

Later, the experts of the Airline descended on the carcass of poor old Prairie Southern, to see what had best be done with the meat upon its bones, and the result was fairly satisfactory. The traffic was inconsiderable, but showed signs of improvement. The land hunger was upon the people, frightened by the cry that cheap lands were almost at an end. Many were stampeded into buying worthless acres which they did not want, in the fear that if they delayed there would be nothing left to buy. Fake real-estate schemes—colonies, ten-acre orchard tracts, hen farms, orange groves, prune plantations—flourished over the width and length of a continent, and promoters reaped a harvest. Land with a legitimate basis of value doubled and trebled in price between seasons.

It was a period of inflation, of claim without proof, of discounting the future. Men raw from the city bought barren acres on which practical farmers had starved, in the expectation of making an easy, healthful living. And in this madness the lands of the old Prairie Southern grant, at one time supposed to be worthless, justified the foresight of Cromwell York by reaching a value in excess of even his expectations. For, given water, they were very good lands indeed, and Western Airline was prepared to sell them with a water guarantee.

This took time; and it was two years after the acquisition of Prairie Southern that York, a trifle grayer and a shade more dictatorial than before, was one morning handed a card by his secretary. He frowned at it, for the name was strange.

"Who's this Casey Dunne, and what does he want?"

Dunne, it appeared, wished to see him in connection with the Coldstream irrigation project, then well under way. He owned property in that vicinity; he also represented certain other ranchers.

"Lawyer?" snapped York. The secretary thought not. "Show him in."

When Dunne entered York did not immediately look up from his papers. This was for general effect. When he did look he became conscious that even as he was measuring so was he being measured.

Casey Dunne carried an atmosphere of outdoors. From the deep tan of his neck, against which the white of his collar lay in startling contrast, to the slender, sinewy brown hands, he bore token of wind and sun and activity in the open. His clothes were new, excellent in fit and material; but, though he did not wear them awkwardly, one gathered the impression that he was accustomed to easier, more informal garments. His manner was entirely self-confident, and betrayed neither awe nor embarrassment. Which gave York an unfavourable impression to start with.

"Take a chair, Mr. Dunne," he said. "I can give you five minutes or ten. Not more. What can I do for you?"

"I may have to ask you to stretch that time limit a little," said Dunne, smiling as if York were an old friend. "Let me start at the beginning, and then I won't have to go back. I live down on the Coldstream, on the line of the old Prairie Southern, which you acquired a couple of years ago. With it you got their land grant. Your land department, after looking the Coldstream blocks over, decided to irrigate and sell these lands; and they undertook a main ditch and a system of ditches, and they are selling the lands at the present time."

"I know all this," said York impatiently. "Carrol runs our land department, and he deals with these matters. He's the man you want to see."

"He referred me to you," said Dunne. "I know this is ancient history, but I'm cleaning up as I go along. You will get your water for these lands from the Coldstream. I and others own property there, and we get our water from the river below your intake. Are you aware that your ditch system is capable of carrying, and that the lands you are selling with a guarantee of an adequate water supply will require, almost the entire normal flow of the Coldstream?"

"I have understood from our land department"—York chose his words carefully—"that the river contains ample water to irrigate our lands."

"Which, I need scarcely point out, is not an answer to my question," Dunne commented quietly.

"But which," York countered, "is all that I am concerned with, Mr. Dunne."

The railway man and the younger, bronzed out-of-doors man eyed each other in silence while one might count ten. In the last words the railway's policy had been laid down, an issue defined, a challenge given.

Casey Dunne's eyes narrowed a little, and his mouth tightened. He spoke very quietly, but it was the exercised quiet of self-restraint:

"I had hoped that you would not take that ground, Mr. York. Let me show you how this concerns myself and others. Take my own case: I have a ranch down there; I have my water record. I have gone on working the ranch, making improvements from year to year, and every dollar I could scrape up I put into more land. I wasn't speculating. I can gamble with any man when I have to; but this wasn't gambling. There was the land, and there was the water. The increase of value was merely a question of time. Others bought as I bought. We put our money and our years of work into lands along the Coldstream. Our whole stake is there. I want you to appreciate that—to get our viewpoint—because with us this isn't a question of greater or less profit, but a question of existence itself. If you take away our water our lands are worthless, and we go broke. I can't put it any plainer than that."

"And without water," said York, "the railway's lands are worthless—or so I am told. The unfortunate feature, according to what you say, seems to be that there is not water enough for you and for us. Therefore each must stand upon his legal rights."

"You raise the point," said Dunne. "It is a question of legal and moral right against what I think—and I don't want to be offensive—but what I think is an attempt to read into a clause of an old charter a meaning which it was never intended to carry."

York's eyebrows drew down. "The clause in the Prairie Southern's charter to which I presume you refer is perfectly clear. It states that the railway company may take from the Coldstream or any other running stream 'sufficient water for its own purposes.' Those are the exact words of the charter. It saves existing rights, but there were none then existing. Therefore the railway's right is first, and all water records are subject to it. The charter further empowers the company to improve, buy, sell, and deal in land. These, then, are purposes of the company, according to its charter, and for these purposes it may construct and maintain all necessary works. Could anything be clearer? We acquired every right that Prairie Southern possessed. The rights were in existence when you bought your land. Therefore I do not think you should complain when we exercise them, even though they may affect you to some extent."

"I follow your argument," Dunne observed, "but the words 'sufficient water for its own purposes' were never intended to mean that the railway should take the whole river."

"What do you think they meant?"

"What any sensible man would think. You may take sufficient water to run your trains, to fill your tanks, to use in any way in connection with your business of transportation, and nobody will object to that; but when you undertake to divert a whole river to irrigate lands in order to sell them, you go too far. That is the business of a real-estate company, and not of a railway company."

Cromwell York, who had obtained the unanimous opinions of three eminent corporation counsel upon that very point, smiled tolerantly.

"You are not a lawyer, Mr. Dunne?"

"No."

"Nor am I. But I have had this clause passed upon, and I tell you that we are quite within our rights. The charter covers the case completely, according to the best legal opinion."

"But nobody thought of irrigation when this charter was granted," objected Dunne. "The land was supposed to be worthless. That was why Prairie Southern got such a large land grant. You know that."

"That has nothing to do with the case. Let us stick to the point. What, so far, have you to complain of?"

"This," said Dunne shortly. "You have a charter which you say entitles you to all the water in the river. You are constructing ditches sufficient to carry it all; you are constructing a dam to divert it all; and you are selling land to an acreage which, if cultivated, will require it all. You admit your intentions. When that dam is built and those ditches are filled our ranches must go dry. It spells our ruin. We are living on sufferance. And yet you ask us what we have to complain of!"

"I need scarcely assure you," said York, "that unless and until we require the water it will not be taken."

"Not nearly good enough," Dunne returned. "We can't work and improve our ranches with that hanging over us. Such an assurance is of no practical value."

"It is all I can give you."

Casey Dunne nodded as one who sees things turning out as he expected. "Then naturally we shall be forced to fight you."

"As you like," said York indifferently. "You will lose, that's all. I can't do any more for you. It is my duty to my shareholders to increase the value of those lands if I can do so legally."

"I wish I could get your viewpoint," said Casey Dunne, and for the first time his voice lost a shade of its calm and began to vibrate with anger. "I'd like to know just how much it differs from a claim jumper's or a burglar's. You know as well as I do that you have no earthly right to take that water. You know you are taking advantage of the careless wording of an old charter. You know that it means the utter ruin of men who went into a God-forsaken land without a dollar, and took a brown, parched wilderness by the throat, and fought it to a standstill—men who backed their faith in the country with years of toil and privation, who made the trails and dug the ditches, and proved the land. And you have the colossal nerve to set a little additional dividend on watered stock against the homes of those men—old, some of them, now—and the rights of their wives and children to the fruits of their work!"

The railway man surveyed him with quiet amusement. To him this resembled the vicarious indignation of a very young country lawyer at a client's wrongs.

"Are you," he asked, with quiet sarcasm, "one of those who made the trails and dug the ditches and endured the privations? If so, they seem to have agreed with you."

Casey Dunne's blue eyes narrowed, and his voice fell to a level. He leaned forward across the desk with an ugly set to his jaw.

"If you want to know just how strong I'm in on this I'll tell you," he snapped. "I'm thirty-four years old. I've made my own living since I was fifteen. I've roughed it because I had to, and I've gone low enough at times. I've starved and blistered and frozen in places you never heard of; and out of it all I got together a little stake. I put that into Coldstream land. Do you think I'm going to let you take it without a fight? I'm not."

York, who never let go himself, drummed on his desk thoughtfully. This was a sentiment he understood and appreciated. A fighter, he recognized a kindred spirit. Also if this man were influential, as appeared likely, among the Coldstream ranchers, it might be well to make terms with him.

"You haven't a chance," he said. "I'll be quite frank with you. We have the best legal advice, and our position is quite unassailable. Even if it were not, we could appeal you into bankruptcy. Still, though I don't admit that you have the least claim on us, we might possibly buy in your holdings at a fair present price."

"That's freeze-out," Dunne returned bluntly. "You force us to sell, and afterward you include our lands in your ditch system, and clean up a thousand per cent. It won't do. We proved that country, and we want that profit ourselves."

"I'm making the offer to you alone," said York. "I don't care about the others. We don't want their land."

"Then why are you trying to make a deal with me?" rasped Casey Dunne. "You think I'll go home and tell my neighbours that they have no show at all to buck the railway, and the best thing we all can do is to sell out for what we can get—and then I keep my mouth shut on the fact that I'm getting more than the rest of them."

"Nothing of the sort," snapped York, who did not like to hear his thought done into plain English. "My offer was made in good faith, but I withdraw it. Keep your land."

"And the devil do me good with it, I suppose!" said Casey Dunne, picking up his hat and rising. "Very well, Mr. York. I know now where you stand. And here's where we stand: Not one of us will sell an acre or a foot. We are going to keep our land, and we are going to keep our water—somehow."

"The best advice I can give you is to see a good lawyer," said York.

"I'll take the advice," Dunne replied. "But whether we take the lawyer's advice or not is another matter entirely."

"What do you mean by that?" York demanded.

"I mean," said Dunne, who had quite recovered his usual manner, which contained a spice of mockery that York found irritating, "that we're not very strong on law down where I come from. Some of us have got along pretty well with what law we carried around with us. Good morning, Mr. York."



CHAPTER III

Considerably more than a year after her experience with the train robbers, Clyde Burnaby received a dinner invitation from the Wades. Kitty Wade was an old friend; her husband, Harrison Wade, was a lawyer just coming into prominence. They had an unpretentious home on the North Side, and such entertaining as they did was on a modest scale. Nevertheless, one met there people worth while, coming people, most of them, seldom those who had "arrived" in the French signification of the word—young professional and business men, authors, playwrights, and politicians in embryo—comparatively unknown as yet, but who, in a few months or a few years, might be famous.

"Oh, Clyde," said Kitty Wade, as Clyde, having removed her wraps, was arranging her hair before the mirror, "I had planned to have Van Cromer take you in to dinner, but at the last moment he couldn't come, and Stella Blake couldn't come either. I had a Mr. Casey Dunne for her. And so, if you don't mind——"

"Of course not," said Clyde. "But post me a little, Kitty. What has Mr. Casey Dunne done, or what is he going to do? What does one talk about to him?"

"Crops," replied Mrs. Wade.

Clyde sighed resignedly. "My dear, I don't mind for once, but I never could understand the market. May wheat, September options, war and rumours of wars, and the effect on prices of the weather sent by divine Providence, probabilities of a large or short crop—these be sealed mysteries to me."

"But Mr. Dunne isn't a broker," said Mrs. Wade. "He's a farmer."

"A—a farmer!" Clyde repeated, in much the same tone she would have used if her hostess had informed her that she was to be paired with a Zulu.

Mrs. Wade laughed. "Not the 'Old Homestead' kind, dear. It's the fault of my Eastern bringing up. I should have said a 'rancher.' He comes from somewhere near the Rockies, and I believe he grows wheat and hay and cattle and—oh, whatever else ranchers grow."

"Oh!" said Clyde doubtfully. "And is he excessively Western? Does he exude the 'God's-own-country' and 'land-of-opportunity' line of conversation? Will he try to sell me land? And how old is he?"

"I have never seen him," Mrs. Wade replied. "He did Harrison a good turn once—gave him some information about lands or something. Harry assures me that he doesn't wear big revolvers or spurs, or eat with his knife—in fact, he is quite presentable. But if you like I'll give you some one else."

"Oh, no," said Clyde. "Mr. Dunne will do very well. I think I shall prefer him to a broker."

"So good of you, dear," smiled Kitty Wade. "Shall we go down? I think the others will be arriving."

Clyde endeavoured to construct an advance portrait of Casey Dunne, but without much success. Unconsciously she was influenced by the characters of alleged Western drama, as flamboyant and nearly as accurate as the Southerners of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." She was genuinely surprised when she found him to be a rather good-looking young man in irreproachable evening clothes.

At that moment dinner was announced. He offered his arm without hesitation. Clyde intercepted a glance from her hostess, brimming with laughter. She laughed back with relief. She had rather dreaded the experience of a dinner companion who would be guilty of all manner of solecisms. Clearly her fears had been groundless. Save in the matter of tan, which was rather becoming, Wade's Western friend differed in no outward detail from the other men in the room.

When they were seated came the embarrassing moment—when it became necessary to find a conversational topic of common acquaintance. But this passed easily. From the table decorations Clyde turned deftly to flowers in general, to trees, to outdoor things. Casey Dunne laughed gently.

"You are trying to talk of things I am expected to know about, aren't you, Miss Burnaby?"

She evaded the charge, laughing also. "What shall we talk about, Mr. Dunne? You shall choose for both of us."

"No, I won't do that. Talk of whatever interests you. I'll follow your lead if I can."

She took him at his word, finding that his acquaintance with current literature and topics of the day was rather more intimate than her own. He seemed to have ideas and opinions formed by his own thought, not mere repetitions of reviews or newspaper comment.

As she glanced at his profile from time to time she became aware of an odd familiarity. He resembled some one she had seen before, but the identity eluded her. Their conversation gradually took a more personal form. Dunne told a story, and told it well. He spoke casually of the West, but instituted no comparisons.

"You are really an exception," Clyde told him. "The average Westerner is such a superior mortal. He looks down on the East, and when he comes among Easterners he condescends."

"It's a relief to have some one admit that Chicago is in the East," he laughed. "No, I don't brag about the West. It's a good country, and it will be better when we have approximated more to Eastern conditions. We are undeveloped as yet. In twenty years——"

"Ah, there it is!" she interrupted. "Scratch a Russian, and find a Tartar. And I took you for an exception!"

He laughed. "I plead guilty. The microbe is in the air. We all have it. Can you blame us? Do you know the West?"

"Only what I have seen from the train. I have told you of every one here. In return tell me about yourself. Mrs. Wade says that you are a rancher."

"Yes, I have a good little ranch in the dry belt, within sight of the mountains."

"The dry belt?" she queried.

"Yes. We call that part of the country which has little or no rain the 'dry belt.' Formerly, for that reason, it was supposed to be useless. But since irrigation has been discovered—you see, it's really a recent discovery with us in America, whatever it is with other peoples—we dry-belt ranchers are in a better position than any others. For we are able to give the land moisture whenever it needs it. Whereas others have to depend on the uncertainties of rainfall. About once in five years their crops are ruined by drought. But we are able to water our fields as the city man waters his lawn."

"So that you are certain of a good crop every year."

"No, not certain. We have merely eliminated one cause of failure. We are still at the tender mercies of hot winds, hail, and frosts late and early."

These things were but names to her. They called up no concrete visions of the baking, siroccolike winds that curdled the grain in the milk, the hail that threshed it and beat it flat, of the late frosts that nipped the tender green shoots in spring, and the early ones in fall that soured the kernels before the complete ripening. But she saw that to him they typified enemies, real, deadly, ever threatening, impossible, so far, to guard against.

Dimly she began to perceive that while certain forces of nature made always for growth, still others, equally powerful, made for destruction. Between the warring forces stood the Man of the Soil, puny, insignificant, matching his own hardly won and his forefather's harder-won knowledge against the elements; bending some to his advantage, minimizing the effects of others, openly defying those he could neither control nor avoid. And she partly realized his triumph in having vanquished one of these inimical forces, one of his most dreaded enemies, Drought.

"You like the life?"

"Yes, I like it. It's idyllic, compared with some phases of existence that I have experienced."

"You have had varied experiences?"

"'Varied!' Yes, I suppose you may call them that."

"Won't you tell me about them?"

"There isn't much to tell, and that little not very entertaining. You see, Miss Burnaby, if my youthful mouth was ever acquainted with a silver spoon it was snatched away at a tender age."

"I beg your pardon," said Clyde quickly. "I'm afraid my request was impertinent."

"Not at all. I went West when I was a kid, and I've seen quite a bit of country. Then, when I had money enough, I put it into land, and went to ranching. That's all there is to it."

She was quite certain, somehow, that there was a great deal more to it. She fell to studying his hands. The fingers were long and slender, but flat, sinewy, and powerful. They seemed to express tenacity of purpose, a grip of whatever they undertook. Once more she looked at his profile, and again she was struck by an elusive familiarity.

"You remind me of somebody—of something," she said. "I can't place it."

"Indeed!" he responded. "Now, I hope the unplaced recollection is not unpleasant."

"It's not definite enough. But it is there. It's not so much when you face me—it's the side view. I've never met you before, of course."

"Of course not," he agreed, but his eyes laughed at her.

"Have I?" she exclaimed. "Surely not! I'm not forgetful, as a rule."

"I was wondering," he said, "if you would remember me. I knew you at once, but I can't claim the honour of having been presented before to-night. Our acquaintance, if I may call it that, was very informal."

"But when—where?" she demanded. "I don't recall——"

"Well, it's not surprising," he admitted. "I was dressed differently. Naturally you wouldn't expect to see me in these." He glanced down at his evening clothes. "The fact is, I sat across the aisle from you in the car when——"

"Oh!" she cried. "Now I know. When the train was held up. Why, of course it was you. I'm so glad to meet you again. I've always wanted to thank you for relieving me of the attentions of that—that——"

"That fresh guy," he supplied gravely.

"Thank you! That 'fresh guy,'" she smiled. "But for you I should have lost my watch. And then you lent me ten dollars."

"Well, you see, they got all your cash."

"I don't know whatever made me take it. I have it still. I didn't need it. I had a book of travellers' checks and credits at the coast. I intended to give it back to you at once. I hope it didn't inconvenience——"

She stopped, conscious that her estimate of the finances of the man in the train had probably been mistaken.

"Not a bit," he replied. "I had a small roll stowed away."

"But what became of you?" she asked. "You didn't come back. I asked the conductor and the porters—everybody. What happened?"

"Why, the explanation is very simple, though I'm not proud of it. When I heard the shooting up in front I thought it was up to me to help the train boys, and I went out with the best intentions. The holdups were backing off, burning a lot of powder but doing no harm, and I guessed that their horses were in a bluff about five hundred yards from the track. Of course, once they got in the saddle they would make a get-away, so far as we were concerned, and I thought if I could beat them to the horses and turn the animals loose we would practically have them rounded up. That's what I tried to do. But as I was running I tripped, and went headfirst into a stump or a stone. Anyway, it knocked me out, and when I emerged from dreamland the train was moving, and I couldn't catch it. So I just tramped the ties to the next station. And there I had a job explaining that I wasn't a holdup myself. It didn't strike those boneheads that no sane holdup would come walking along the track a few hours after a robbery."

Clyde was disappointed at the baldness of his narration. Almost any man would have made some effort at description. Dunne had made none whatever. He had confined himself to the barest of bare facts.

"You make a poor raconteur, Mr. Dunne."

"Really, that's all there was to it," he replied. "'We fit and they fit; and they ran and we ran'—or at least I did till I tripped."

Mrs. Wade rose.

"After you have had your cigar we will continue our conversation, if you care to," said Clyde.

"Just what I was going to ask. I hope Wade's cigars are small."

When the ladies had gone, Harrison Wade drew his chair beside Dunne's.

"I've been thinking over that matter of yours, Casey, and the more I think it over the less I like it. That charter, backed by Airline money and influence, will be a hard thing to get over. I hate to discourage you, but the best advice I can give to you and your neighbours is to put a fair price on your holdings, and offer them to the railway en bloc."

"But we don't want to sell, Wade. Couldn't you get an injunction or something, and tie up their operations?"

"No, I'm afraid not. You can't bring an action until you have something to found it on—that is to say, some wrong to complain of—some actual interference with your rights to water. And you can't get an injunction unless you can show that your rights are beyond question. It's a toss-up whether that charter takes precedence or not. I'm speaking frankly to you. With an ordinary client I'd throw a professional front of profound knowledge, but as it is I own up that it's a complicated question, depending almost entirely on the court. And courts are just as uncertain as other human institutions."

Casey Dunne frowned through the spreading fog of cigar smoke. "I'm quite aware of it, Wade. But here it is: We don't want to sell. Even if they gave us a fair present price, we would be losers, for land out there is going to double in value in the next couple of years. And what they intend to do is simply to freeze us out and force us to sell at dry-land prices. Therefore, we've got to fight. Go ahead and try for an injunction. If that is refused, bring an action as soon as you can. And meanwhile we'll hang on to our water somehow."

"Don't do anything to prejudice your case in the courts," Wade warned.

"According to you York will do that, anyway," said Dunne. "No, Wade, that's flat, final, whatever. We won't let go till we have to. We won't be skinned out of the profit we are entitled to by foresight and hard work. Speaking for myself, I've put my whole stack on this bet, and with a straight deal it's a sure winner. And if the deal's going to be crooked I'll break up the game any way that comes handy."

"Go to it, my friend," said the lawyer. "It's your affair. I've told you what I think, and I'll not add to it. I hope you have water when I come out this summer to make you that long-promised visitation." He changed the subject abruptly. "You and Clyde Burnaby seemed to be getting on swimmingly."

"Clyde—is that her name?" said Dunne. "Seems like a nice girl."

"She's all of that. You know who she is, of course?"

"Not a bit. Just her name."

"Niece of old Jim Hess, with a fortune of her own."

"Pretty lucky," Dunne commented.

"Pretty and lucky," said his host. "Old York hates Hess like poison, a sentiment which Hess returns, according to rumour. I don't suppose you've told Clyde Burnaby your troubles?"

Dunne stared at him. "Of course not! What do you take me for?"

"That's all right, my son; don't swell up so. Why don't you tell her?"

"Why the deuce should I? Do you think I go yawping my business affairs to every female I meet?"

"Well, Clyde Burnaby's good stuff," said Wade. "She has a level head. If it comes up that way, Casey, tell her all about it. She'll sympathize with you."

"I'm not looking for sympathy."

"And she might give you some good advice."

"Rats!" Casey Dunne commented, inelegantly but forcibly, and Wade said no more.

Dunne was glad when the cigars were ended. He found Clyde Burnaby at the piano, barely touching the keys. A faint melody seemed to flow from her finger's tips.

"Do you sing, Mr. Dunne?"

"Only very confidentially. When I was riding for a cow outfit I used to sing at night, when the cattle were bedded down. Sort of tradition of the business that it kept 'em quiet. They didn't seem to mind my voice. And that's really the most encouragement I ever got."

Mrs. Wade asked Clyde to play. She complied at once, without hesitation. They applauded her. Afterward one of the men sang, to her accompaniment. Then she and Dunne drifted together once more.

"I liked your playing," he said, "but not what you played. It had no tune."

"It was Beethoven!"

"All the same, it had no tune. I like the old songs—the ones I can follow in my mind with the words I know."

"Why, so do I," she admitted; "but, my Philistine friend, I was expected to play the other kind."

"I understand that. But I like to hear what is low grade enough for me to appreciate. I don't get much music at home."

"Tell me about your ranch. I'd like to know what you do and how you live. To begin with, beggin' yer honour's pardon in advance, is there a Mrs. Dunne?"

"No such luck," he replied. He sketched the ranch routine briefly. She was interested, asking many questions. The evening wore away. The guests began to depart. But Clyde had arranged to stay the night with the Wades.

"By the way," she said, "I still have your ten-dollar bill. I will send it to you."

"Don't do that. Keep it."

"I couldn't."

"Of course you can. You may pay me interest if you like."

"At what per cent?"

"Current rates in my country—eight."

"Very well," she laughed. "It's a bargain. But where is your security?"

He considered gravely. "Certainly I should have something. I will be satisfied with that rose you are wearing."

Clyde coloured slightly, glancing at him swiftly.

"Kitty," she called to Mrs. Wade, "I want you as a witness. Mr. Dunne has made me a loan. His security is this rose—and nothing more. Please witness that I give it to him."

And later that night Kitty Wade said to her lord:

"For a rancher, Harry, your Casey Dunne has class. I never knew Clyde Burnaby to give a flower to any man before."

"And you see a case of love at first sight," said Wade, scornfully and sleepily. "Pshaw, Kitty, you're barking at a knot. Casey's a fine chap, but Lord! she's got too much money for him. Suppose she did give him a rose! Didn't she call you over to chaperon the transaction? That puts the sentimental theory out of business."

"And that's all a lawyer knows!" said his wife. "Why, you old silly, don't you see that she couldn't have given it to him any other way—with all those people in the room? Clyde Burnaby can think about as fast as anybody I know."



CHAPTER IV

Casey Dunne pulled a fretful buckskin to a halt as he topped a rise and looked down on Talapus Ranch. It lay before him, the thousand-odd acres of it, lush and green beneath the sloping, afternoon sun, an oasis in a setting of brown, baked earth and short, dry grasses which seldom felt the magic of the rains. The ranch was owned by Donald McCrae, a pioneer of the district, and it was the show place of the country. It was Exhibit A to incomers, a witness to the results of irrigation. The broad, fat acres were almost level. There was no waste land, no coulees, no barren hills to discount its value. Every foot of it could be irrigated, and most of it was actually irrigated and cultivated.

Dunne's eye followed the lines of the ditches, marked by margins of green willows. They cut through the fields of wheat, of oats, of alfalfa, timothy, and red clover. They were the main arteries. From them branched veins supplying the fields with the water that gave them life—the water without which the land was waste and barren; but with which it bore marvellously with the stored fertility of fallow centuries. Away at one end of the ranch, sheltered to north and west by low hills, was the ranch house itself, surrounded by young orchards, the stables, the corrals, the granaries, the cattle sheds, tool and implement houses. At that distance, in the clear, dry air, they looked like toys, miniatures, sharply defined in angle and shadow. So, too, the stock grazing in the fields were of lilliputian dimensions.

From where he sat in the saddle Dunne could see the Coldstream, scarcely more than a large creek, dignified in that land of dryness by the name of river, whose source was in the great green glaciers and everlasting snows of the hills. Its banks were green with willow and cottonwood. It was a treasure stream of untold value. With it the land prospered; without it the land and the men who peopled the land must fail.

"And that ranch, and others like it," Dunne muttered through his teeth, "must go dry and back to brown prairie unless the owners sell out to that old holdup, York, at his own price. Well, Mr. York——You yellow devil!"

The last words did not refer to Cromwell York. For, without provocation or preliminaries, the buckskin's head had dived between his legs, his back arched like an indignant cat's, and with a vicious squeal he began to pitch.

Dunne drew his quirt and let him have it. The brown, plaited leather played like lightning on quarters, flanks, cached head, and flattened ears.

"No work, and a bellyful of oats three times a day!" he gritted. "Forgotten who's your boss, hey? I'll show you, you hammer-headed, saffron-hided——"

"Stay with him, Casey!"

Dunne turned his head, and shut his teeth upon forthcoming references to his steed's pedigree. A girl, brown, lean, aquiline of feature, sat astride a big slashing bay, and watched the contest with amusement. Dunne's face, red from exertion, deepened in colour; for some of his remarks, though exceedingly apposite, had not been intended for feminine ears. He answered, between pitches, in the vernacular:

"You bet I will, Sheila! Go to it, old son! Bump to glory if you like!"

But as suddenly as he had begun the buckskin desisted. He heaved a sigh, stood still, and turned a mildly inquiring, backward eye on his rider. It was as if he had said: "What! Still there? You surprise me!"

Sheila McCrae laughed. "He's passing it off as a joke, Casey."

"He nearly got me, the old sinner," said Dunne. "Now he'll be good till next time. You miserable, imitation bad horse, some day I'll manhandle you."

"Shiner knows you won't," the girl commented.

"He knows you're fond of him. You'll quirt him when he pitches, and then give him an extra feed."

"Well, maybe," Casey admitted shamelessly. "I like the old hyena. I've frazzled out leather on his hide that cost more than he did, but I never went after him right. He certainly can drift when he has to. What's the news, Sheila? All well at the ranch?"

She nodded, running a keen eye over his face. "All well. But you're the news bureau, Casey."

"Am I?" he said. "Well, then, I haven't a piece of good news in my saddlebags—not one."

"I knew it," she said. "Well, it can't be helped, Casey. There will be some way out. Let's go on to the ranch. Supper will be ready. Most of the men won't come till afterward. I won't be at your council of war, but I want you to let me know just what you decide on."

"Of course," he replied. "You've got a better head than most men, Sheila. I don't know what we will do—haven't a notion. It looks as though we were up against a tough proposition."

His dejection was apparent, and, womanlike, she tried to cheer him. Some way would be found. The action of the railway was so high-handed and unjust that it could not succeed. But though she spoke cheerfully, her keen eyes were troubled, and her face was clouded as they rode up to the ranch.

They found Donald McCrae at the stables. He was a dark-faced giant of a man, and for all his years carried himself as straight as a young pine. All his life had been spent on the frontier. He had seen it move westward, and had moved with it from the Great Lakes across the Great Plains. He had seen it vanish, as the wild pigeon and the buffalo had gone—mysteriously, in a season, almost. Wheat fields, etched in green and gold, lay where he had made his lonely camps; orchards nestled by little lakes and in mountain valleys where he had trapped the beaver; strings of brass-bound, vestibuled coaches whirled where he had ridden his pony with the pack train shuffling behind. And here, on the Coldstream, he had made his last stand, taken up land, and turned, when past his prime, to the quiet life of a rancher.

"Light down, light down, Casey!" he called. "Put your cayuse in the stable. Give me Beaver Boy, Sheila. Go up to the house and fix us some whiskey with a chip of ice in it, like a good girl. Stir up the Chink as you go through, and make him rustle supper in a hurry. We'll be right in." He took his daughter's horse, and in the stable turned to Dunne.

"Well?" he demanded tersely.

"Nothing," Casey replied. "They stand their hand."

"I was afraid of it," said McCrae. "And they outhold us, Casey."

"Yes. Too much money."

"Will they buy us?"

"No. York offered to buy me. I was to be a decoy for the rest, I think. I refused. Now he will freeze us out."

"Will he?" said McCrae heavily. "Will he? Maybe so. And maybe——" He did not complete the sentence, but stood at the door, scowling at the fair fields. "Twenty years back, Casey—yes, ten, even—if a man jumped my staking I'd have known what to do. We own this water. What's the difference? Can't the law help us? Do we have to help ourselves?"

"It may come to that," Casey replied. "Yes, it's pretty nearly come to that, McCrae. I saw a lawyer—one of the best in the business. He says the odds are against us. They will appeal and appeal—carry it up to the highest court. Meanwhile our land will be dry likely. We're out on a limb. If we hang on they shoot, and if we drop off they skin us."

"I guess that's so," said McCrae. "It's a bad fix any way you look at it. There's the ranch. That ain't so much, far's I'm concerned. I've been broke before, and I can rustle for myself for years yet. But there's my wife and Sheila and Alec. It's theirs. I worked for them. It's all I've got to leave them. You see, Casey, I can't stand to lose it."

"I know," said Casey sympathetically. "It's a hard position. Look here, Donald, if you wish it I'll vote for breaking our pool, and each man doing the best he can for himself."

"No, I didn't mean that," said McCrae. "The railway wouldn't give us a fair price, and nobody else would buy with this hanging over. I'll stick. But you, now, it's some different with you. You're young, you ain't married. It's your stake, of course, but then you've got time left you to get another. They offered to buy you out. I don't know but you'd best take their offer. That'll give you something to start on. None of us will think the less of you for it."

"The agreement was that we were to fight this to a finish. If we sold out the railway was to buy all or none. If you can stay with that I can."

"But then, you see, Casey——"

"I see, Donald. You know me better than that."

McCrae slapped him on the shoulder with a huge hand, and his voice took on the Gaelic accent of his childhood learned from his father, that McCrae who had in his time ruled a thousand miles of wilderness for the great fur company.

"I do know ye, boy, and it is proud I will be of it. There's Sheila at the door, callin' us. A toss of liquor and a bite—it will put the heart in us again. We must cheer up for the women, lad."

But in spite of this resolution supper was not a merry meal. Talk was spasmodic, interrupted by long silences. Mrs. McCrae—slight, gentle, motherly, with wavy silver hair—was plainly worried. Her husband brooded unconsciously over his plate. Sheila and Casey, conversing on topics which neither was thinking about, blundered ridiculously. And the son of the house, Alec McCrae, a wiry, hawk-faced young man of twenty-two, strongly resembling his sister, was almost silent.

Soon after supper the ranchers who had banded together for mutual protection began to arrive by saddle and buckboard. Men of all ages, they comprised a dozen descents and nationalities, the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon strains predominating.

There was Oscar Swanson, heavy, slow-moving, blond as Harold Haarfagar, a veritable Scandinavian colossus; Wyndham, clean-bred, clean-built, an English gentleman to his fingers' tips; old Ike James, whose tongue carried the idiom and soft-slurring drawl of his native South; Eugene Brule, three parts Quebec French and one part Cree; Carter, O'Gara, Bullen, Westwick, and half a dozen others.

One and all they were wind-and-sun tanned, steady of eye, mostly quiet and brief of speech. Life was a serious business with them just then. Their ranches were their all. They had given hostages to competence. Up to a year ago they had believed themselves lucky, independent, on the way to modest fortune. Then came alarming rumours; next, construction of works confirming the rumours. Now they were come to hear the worst or best from the lips of their envoy, Casey Dunne.

They listened as he gave details of his interviews with York and Wade, lips grimly wrapped around cigars and pipe stems, troubled eyes straining through the blue smoke at the speaker.

"And you couldn't get an injunction?" said Wyndham.

"No. The judge said that the mere fact of building a dam did not show an intention to interfere with anybody's rights."

"Didn't—eh?" snapped Carter, at high tension. "Then I'd like to know what would show it!"

"So would I," said Dunne. "Anyway, what the judge said went. The long and short of it is that we can't go to law till they actually take our water. Wade advises us to sell out if we can get a fair price. And that's all I have to report, gentlemen."

"A fair price!" exclaimed Carter. "That's all right to talk about—but who'll give us one? The railway won't buy—it's cheaper to freeze us out. Nobody else will. And, if it comes to that, what is a fair price? Land is boosting everywhere. If we sold now we'd just be robbing ourselves."

"S'pose they starts to rustle our water and we go to law," said old James, "does this here lawsuit tangle up things so's't we get plenty of water till the case is tried?"

"I'm afraid not," Casey replied. "That's the worst of it. Wade seemed to think that once they got the water they could keep it until the case was settled by the last court of appeal. And that would put us out of business."

"It's sure a mean jack pot," said James. "It looks like they have it on us every way. The prospects for our emergin' winners ain't cheerin' none, but, gents, speakin' for myself alone, I wouldn't sell at no price. I'm aimin' to live where I be till you-alls beds me down for keeps. I reckon I'll stay with the game while I got a chaw and a ca'tridge left. I may be froze out, but dog-gone my ol' hide if I'll be bluffed out. This here ain't none different from claim jumpin'. I own my water, and I'm goin' to keep on havin' it. And the man that shets it off will be mighty apt to see how they irrigate them green fields 'way over yander 'cross the River Jordan."

His words were like fire in dry straw.

"That's right, Uncle Ike!" cried Carter.

"By George I'm with you myself!" cried Wyndham.

"Moi aussi!" exclaimed Brule. "By damn, yes!"

"Yes, let 'em try it!" cried young Alec McCrae, his eyes gleaming like those of a fierce young hawk that sights its first quarry. "Let 'em try it!" he repeated ominously, nodding to himself.

But on the excitement of the others Donald McCrae's words fell like an icy douche: "Men, this is plain foolishness. Alec, let me hear no more of it from you. James, you should know better. We can't enforce claim law here. The old days are gone."

"I ain't gone yet, nor you ain't," old James replied, his eyes gleaming balefully through slitted lids. "I give it out now that I don't set quiet and see my ditches go dry. Long's the law won't help us—and the law never gave no action in the West nohow—I'm goin' to help myself. I ain't raisin' the long yell for partners, neither!"

"You can't bring back the old days," McCrae repeated. "I stand to lose as much as any man here, but shooting one or two men who are doing what they are paid to do won't help us. You all know that."

"That's so," Casey admitted. "That's the last thing we can afford to do."

"Well, maybe you boys are right," said the old man reluctantly. "Maybe I ain't up to date. But what you goin' to do? You got to do somethin'."

"Yes," said Wyndham. "They are getting ahead with their work. It won't be long till that dam is finished. Then they'll take the water from us, that's certain."

But here Big Oscar received an inspiration. He had been listening carefully, casting mildly inquiring blue eyes on the speakers. He was a good listener, was Oscar, and he seldom spoke. His mental engine, so far as could be judged by its verbal expression, turned over stiffly. Apparently it had never been run enough to be smoothed down—at least in English. But his contribution to the debate at this juncture was noteworthy. Said he:

"Say, Ay tenk Ay blow dat dam, easy!"

They stared at him for a moment, while the suggestion took root. It was obvious that if the dam were destroyed the water would remain theirs until it was rebuilt. True, its destruction would be a lawless act, amounting to a declaration of war; but war on them had already been declared. They would be merely striking the first blow, and here was the logical spot to strike.

"Good boy, Oscar," said Carter. "I believe that's the answer."

"What do you think, McCrae?" asked Wyndham.

"I'm against violence in any form," said McCrae slowly. "But they are forcing it on us. They want to steal our ranches. It amounts to that. This is the only thing we can do, and when we do it we'll do it right."

A round of applause greeted his concluding words. Old Ike James whispered to his neighbour:

"This here Highland Scotch stock is sure a funny proposition. What they start with a pra'ar they're mighty apt to end with a gun. Ol' Donald's a sure-'nough wolf when he gets goin'."

"And you, Dunne?" asked Wyndham.

"I'm in. I guess it's a case. Oscar, you have a great head. When shall we start the fireworks, and who's to start 'em?"

Oscar, flattered by the compliment and the unusual attention, picked up his hat. "Ay ban good powder man. Ay tenk Ay start him now when Ay gat some powder," said he. He smiled at them serenely. "Mebbe if t'ree, four you faller come by me you svear Ay ban home all night?" he suggested ingenuously.

But there was an objection to the immediate execution of the plan. They were just then getting all the water they needed. The farther ahead they could set the date of the destruction of the dam while retaining the water, the farther off would be the date when it could be rebuilt, as they had no doubt it would be. Thus they might tide through the hot, dry summer. Whereas, if it were blown up now it might be repaired and their water taken when they needed it most.

Just then it seemed wise to pursue a policy of masterly inactivity. But the mere fact of having settled on a course of action cleared the air, cheered them. In place of a despondent lethargy there was a nervous tension, as before a battle. They laughed and joked amid the bobbing stable lanterns as they harnessed and saddled; and they rode away from Talapus Ranch one and all in better spirits than they had come.



CHAPTER V

No one has ever satisfactorily explained the rapidity with which news travels in sparsely settled communities. But the fact remains undisputed. Also the further fact that its accuracy is in inverse ratio to its rapidity, which does not need so much explanation. The men who had been at Talapus said nothing of the meeting, nothing of the purpose of it. And yet the gathering was speedily known from one end of the country to the other in conjunction with startling rumours, none of them authentic or traceable, but all disquieting. The report gained currency that the ranchers contemplated nothing less than an armed attack on the ditch and dam construction camps, for the purpose of running the workmen out of the country.

This came to the ears of Sleeman, who was the local sales agent of the railway's land department; and Sleeman passed it on to his chief, who thought it of sufficient importance to put up to York, seeing that that gentleman was responsible for the conception of the department's policy in this instance.

York, while not attaching much importance to the story, thought of the remarks of Casey Dunne. It was just possible that the ranchers might perpetrate some hostile act. It happened, too, that at this time the engineer in charge of the Coldstream irrigation project took sick, necessitating the appointment of a new man. And it further happened that another engineer in the railway's employ, named Farwell, had got through with a difficult piece of tunnelling, and was ready for fresh work.

"I'll send Farwell down there," said York, speaking to Carrol, who was the head of his land department.

Now, Farwell was altogether too good a man to waste on a little, puttering job like this. He had seen service in half a dozen countries, always with credit to himself, and he was in line for big promotion. But against his undoubted ability and the fact that he was a tremendous driver, who spared no one, not even himself, was the further fact that he was harsh, domineering, impatient, lacking tact or diplomacy. He was a fighter by instinct. He preferred to break through than to go around. He antagonized rather than conciliated. But in the event of real trouble he was there with the genuine, hall-marked goods, as he had shown on several occasions when a hard man had been needed. The land department, however, had it's own staff, and Carrol did not like the importation of an outsider.

"No need to send Farwell," said he. "We can look after it ourselves."

"Farwell's the best man we can have there if anything goes wrong," said York positively. "He'll bring these ranchers to time. I'll send him."

Farwell descended on the Coldstream country in a bitter temper, for the job was far beneath his professional dignity as he looked at it, and he knew that in the meantime others would get better work to which he considered himself entitled. Indeed, he had come within an ace of resigning, and had insisted, as a condition, on a definite promise of something very good in the immediate future.

When he stepped off the train at the little Coldstream station he was already prejudiced against the country, its inhabitants, and its future; and what he saw as the train rumbled away into the distance did not tend to improve his temper.

Coldstream itself for years had amounted to little more than a post-office address. From the time of its building in the days of a boom which had no foundation, and therefore no permanence, it had retrogressed steadily. Now it was picking up. But although times were beginning to improve, it still bore many of the earmarks of an abandoned camp. The struggle for life during the lean years was more apparent in outward sign than was the present convalescence. Most of the houses were now occupied, but almost all were unpainted, stained gray and brown by wind and sun and snow, forlorn and hideous things of loosened boards and flapping ends of tarred sheeting.

Although it was only spring, the road which wound from nowhere between the unsightly shacks was ankle deep in dust. The day was unseasonably warm, the air still. The dust lay on the young leaves of the occasional clumps of cottonwoods, and seemed to impregnate the air so that it was perceptible to the nostrils—a warm, dry, midsummer smell, elusive, but pervasive. The whole land swam and shimmered in hot sunshine. The unpainted buildings danced in it, blurring with the heat waves. Save for the occasional green of cottonwoods, the land lay in the brown nakedness of a dry spring, wearying the eye with its sameness.

Farwell swore to himself at the prospect, feeling his grievance against his employers and the world at large become more acute. He considered himself ill-used, slighted, and he registered a mental vow to rush his work and be quit of the accursed place at the earliest possible moment.

The individual who seemed to combine the functions of station agent and baggage hustler approached, wheeling a truck. He was a small man, gray-headed, with a wrinkled, wizened face, and eyes of faded blue. To him the engineer addressed himself.

"I'm Farwell," said he.

The agent halted the truck, smiled in friendly fashion, swung around, and presented his left ear cupped in his left hand. At the same time a strange, pungent odour assailed Farwell's nostrils.

"What did yez say?" he asked. "Onforch'nately me right a-cowstick organ is temp'rar'ly to the bad from shootin' a po-o-olecat. The gun busted on me, and I massacreed the marauder wid an ax. Did iver ye disthroy a skunk wid an ax? Then don't. Avoid mixin' it wid the od'riferous animals. Faix, I've buried me clothes—it was a new nightshirt, a flannel wan that I had on—and scrubbed meself wid kerosene and whale-oil soap that I keep f'r the dog, and I'm no bed of vi'lets yet. I can see ye wrinkle yer nose, and I don't blame yez. I'll move to the down-wind side of yez. Ye see, it was like this: The t'ief iv the wurruld was in me chicken house——"

"I said I was Farwell," that gentleman interrupted.

"Farrel, is ut?" said the station agent. "I knowed a Farrel thirty years gone. W'u'd he be yer father, now? His people come from Munster, if I mind right. Ye do not favour him, but maybe ye take after yer mother. Still, I'm thinkin' ye can't be his son, on account of yer age; though he turned Mormon, and I heerd——"

"I said Farwell, not Farrel," the engineer interpolated. "Richard K. Farwell." He thought it all the introduction necessary.

The station agent extended a welcoming hand. "Me own name is C. P. Quilty," said he, "the initials indicatin' Cornelius Patrick, and I'm glad to know ye. There's mighty few drummers stops off here now, but trade's bound to pick up, wid the land boom an' all." A sidelong glance at the perfecto clenched between Farwell's teeth. "W'u'd seegyars be yer line, now? I'm a judge of a seegyar meself, though the bum smokes they do be makin' nowadays has dhruv me to the pipe. No offense to you, Mr. Farrel, for no doubt ye carry a better line nor most. If ye like I'll introduce ye to Bob Shiller, that keeps the hotel——"

"Look here," snapped Farwell, at the end of his patience, "I'm Farwell, the engineer come down to take charge of this irrigation job. I want to know if there are any telegrams for me, and where the devil the camp is, and how I get to it. And that's about all I want to know, except whether I can get a bath at this hotel of Shiller's."

And Cornelius Patrick Quilty shook hands with him again.

"To think iv me takin' ye fur a drummer, now!" he exclaimed in self-reproach. "Sure, I've often heard of yez. I live over beyant, in the shack wid the picket fince on wan side iv ut. The other sides blowed down in a dust storm a year gone, and I will erect them some day when I have time. But ye can't miss me place, more be token half the front iv the house was painted wanst. They say the paint was stole, but no matter. Bein' both officials iv the comp'ny, Mr. Farrel, we will have much to talk over. No doubt ye have been referred to me for details iv the disturbin' rumours. Well, it's this wa-ay: I am in the service iv the comp'ny, and I dhraw me pay wid regularity, praise be, so that I w'u'd not for a moment think of questionin' the wisdom iv the policy iv me superiors——"

"That's right—don't!" snapped Farwell. "Now, get me those telegrams, if there are any, and tell me what I want to know."

A hurt look crept into Mr. Quilty's eyes of faded blue.

"I regret that I have no messages for ye, sor," said he. "The comp'ny's land agent, Mr. Sleeman, will take ye wherever ye want to go in his autymobile. Ye will see his sign as ye go uptown. But, speakin' as man to man, Mr. Farwell, and havin' the interests of thim that pays me to heart, I w'u'd venture on a little advice."

"Well, what is it?" asked Farwell.

"It's this," said Quilty. "The men hereabouts—the ranchers—is sore. Don't make them sorer. Duty is duty, and must be done, iv coorse. But do ut as aisy as ye can." He broke off, eying two riders who were approaching the station.

"Who are those people?" asked Farwell.

"The man is Misther Casey Dunne, and the young leddy is Miss Sheila McCrae," Quilty informed him.

"I've heard of Dunne," said Farwell, who had done so from York. "Who's the McCrae girl? Is she one of the same bunch?"

"Miss McCrae is a leddy," said Quilty, with quiet dignity. "And Casey Dunne is—is a dom good friend of mine."

The riders drew up at the platform, and Casey Dunne hailed the agent. "Hallo, Corney! Any freight for Talapus or Chakchak?" The last was the name of his own ranch, and in the Chinook jargon signified an eagle.

"Freight for both iv yez," Quilty replied. "But sure ye won't be takin' it on the cayuses. Howdy, Miss Sheila! Will ye 'light and try the comp'ny's ice wather wid a shot iv a limon, or shall I bring ye a pitcher?"

"I'll 'light, Mr. Quilty, thank you," said Sheila. She swung down from Beaver Boy, letting the lines trail, and Dunne dropped off Shiner.

Quilty introduced the engineer punctiliously. Farwell raised his hat, and bowed to the girl, but did not offer his hand to Casey Dunne.

"I've heard of you—from York," he said meaningly.

"I've heard that Mr. York has a wonderful memory for faces and names," said Casey. "Quite flattering to be remembered by him. I've only met him once."

"He remembers you very well," Farwell returned dryly.

Sheila McCrae stood by, watching them, hearing the rasp of steel beneath the apparently casual words. And unconsciously she measured the men, one against the other.

Farwell was slightly the taller and much the heavier. He created the impression of force, of dominance. The heavy, square chin, the wide, firm mouth, the black, truculent eyes beneath heavy brows, all marked the master, if not the tyrant. His body was thick and muscular, and he stood solidly, confident of himself, of his position, a man to command.

Casey Dunne was lighter, leaner, more finely drawn. Lacking the impression of pure force, of sheer power, he seemed to express the capacity for larger endurance, of better staying qualities, of greater tensile strength. He was cast in another mould, a weapon of a different pattern. Farwell might be compared to a battle-axe; Dunne to a rapier.

And being of the battle-axe type Farwell saw no reason to mince matters with Dunne, whom he looked upon as a leader of the alleged trouble makers, and therefore directly responsible for his, Farwell's, presence in that confounded desert.

"No," he said, "York doesn't forget much. And he hears quite a lot, too. I've come down to finish this dam, and complete the irrigation ditches, and I'm going to rush the job."

"It's pretty well along, I hear," Dunne commented. "You'll be putting the finishing touches to it pretty soon. Quite a nice piece of work, that. You want to be careful of the sidehill ditches, though. They wash, sometimes."

Farwell was taken aback. There was no hint of insincerity in the other's tone. It was impersonal, as if he were not at all concerned.

"I'll be careful enough," he returned. He would have liked to tell Dunne that he was also prepared to take care of any trouble that might arise, but on second thought he decided to wait for a better opening. "I'll be plenty careful of a good many things," he added significantly.

"Nothing like it," Dunne rejoined. "Water finds the weak spots every time. Well, good morning, Mr. Farwell. Glad to see you at my ranch any time. Ask anybody where it is."

Farwell stared after him for a moment, a little puzzled and by no means satisfied with himself. He had come openly contemptuous of the ranchers, thinking of them as rough, unlettered farmers who must necessarily stand in awe of him. But here was a different type. "Pretty smooth proposition, that Dunne," he growled to himself. "'Water finds the weak spots,' hey! Now, I wonder what he meant by that?"

He picked up his grip, and walked up into the town, finding the company's office without difficulty, and introduced himself to Sleeman, the sales agent, whom he had never met.

Mr. Sleeman possessed a shrewd eye, and a face indicative of an ability to play a very good game. He was in his shirt sleeves for greater comfort, and he smoked particularly strong plug tobacco in a brier pipe.

"What's in these yarns, anyhow?" Farwell asked, when they had got down to business.

"Ask me something easier," Sleeman replied. "I gave headquarters all I heard. If I were you I'd keep my eyes open."

"I'll do that," said Farwell. "These fellows always do a lot of talking, and let it go at that."

"Not here," said Sleeman. "The men who will be affected aren't doing any talking at all. That looks bad to me. They are just standing pat and saying nothing. But you can bet they are doing some thinking. Mighty bad lot to run up against if they start anything—old-timers, ex-punchers, prospectors, freighters, and fur men, with a sprinkling of straight farmers. The worst of it is that these rumours are hurting us already, and they'll hurt us worse."

"How?"

"Landlookers hear them, and shy off. No man wants to buy into a feud with his neighbours—to buy land with water that somebody else thinks he ought to have. Before I can make a showing in actual sales this thing has got to be settled."

"Huh!" said Farwell. "Well, I'll finish the job, and turn the water down the ditches, and that's all I have to do. I met one of these fellows at the station—Dunne, his name is."

"Oh, you met Casey Dunne. And what do you think of him?"

"Don't like him; he's too smooth. Looked me square in the eye, and told me to be careful with sidehill ditches, and so on, just as if it didn't affect him at all. Too innocent for me. I had a notion to tell him he wasn't fooling me a little bit."

"H'm!" said Sleeman. "Well, I give Casey credit for being a good man. He has a big stake here—owns a lot of land besides his ranch. It's make or break with him."

"Then I'm sorry for him. He had a girl with him—McCrae her name is. Who's she?"

"Her father owns Talapus Ranch. It's the biggest and best here. Good people, the McCraes."

"And I suppose Dunne's going to marry her? Is that it?"

"I never heard so. But if he is I don't blame him; she's all right, that girl."

Farwell grunted. He had rather liked Sheila's looks, but, being a man of violent prejudices, and disliking Dunne instinctively, he found it easy to dislike his friends. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do," he announced. "I'm going to put it up to these fellows straight the first chance I get that we don't care a hang for anything they may do. If they want trouble they can come a-running."

"Well," Sleeman commented, "of course, I'm here to sell land. The company is my boss, and naturally I back its play. But my personal opinion is that it would have been better to have bought those fellows out, even at fancy prices, than to ride over them roughshod. They're sore now, and you can't wonder at it. If I were you I'd go easy—just as easy as I could."

"Nonsense!" snorted Farwell. "That's what that old fool of a mick down at the station told me. How the devil does the company happen to have such an old fossil on the job?"

"Quilty's a left-over from construction days. He's been here ever since steel was laid. They say he averted a bad smash once by sheer nerve or pure Irish luck. Anyway, he has a sort of guarantee of his job for life. Not a bad old boy when you get to know him."

"He ought to be fired, and a younger man put in his place," said Farwell. "He talks too much. Good Lord! He's like an endless record!"

"Pshaw! What do you care?" said Sleeman. "He's better than a talking machine in this place. Well, come over to the hotel, and afterward I'll run you out to the camp."



CHAPTER VI

Sheila McCrae and Beaver Boy and Casey Dunne and Shiner drifted through the golden afternoon just ahead of a dust cloud of their own making. Sheila rode astride, in the manner of a country where side saddles are almost unknown. Her stiff-brimmed pony hat was pushed back because of the heat. Sometimes she rode with it in her hand, careless of the dust which powdered her masses of dark, neatly coiled hair. The action revealed her keen, cleanly cut features, so strongly resembling her brother's. But the resemblance was softened by femininity; for young McCrae's visage was masculine and hawklike, and under excitement fierce, even predatory; while his sister's, apart from sex, was more refined, more thoughtful, with a grave sweetness underlying the firmness.

The two were unusually silent as the horses kicked off mile after mile. Sheila roused herself first, and looked at her companion. Because his hat was pulled low she could see but little of his face save the mouth and chin; but the former was compressed and the latter thrust out at a decidedly aggressive angle.

"A penny for them, Casey!"

"Take 'em free," he returned. "I was wondering whether we had any chance to beat this game, and I can't see it. The bank roll against us is too big. It will get our little pile in the end, just as sure as fate."

"Well, you can't help that, can you?" she commented sharply. "What do you want to do—lie down and quit? You wouldn't do that. Brace up!"

"That's the talk," he acknowledged. "That's what I need now and then. Perhaps I get a pessimistic view when I'm trying for an impartial one."

"What do you think of this Farwell person?"

"Farwell represents the railway in more ways than one. He takes what he wants—if he's strong enough. He's some bully—and so is the railway. But he isn't a bluff—and neither is the railway. He's had experience—plenty of it—and, on a guess, I should say that he is sent down here to take care of any trouble that may start. He is hostile already. You can see it."

"Yes." And after a moment's silence she asked: "What is going to start, Casey?"

"I don't know exactly."

"Of course you know. Dad won't say a word, and Sandy makes wise remarks about girls who try to butt into men's affairs. I'm left out, and it's the first time that has ever happened to me. Nice, isn't it?"

"No, it's confoundedly annoying. All the same, Sheila, they're quite right."

"But why? I'm no silly kid—no chattering, gossipy young lady. I have as much interest in the ranch as Sandy. I know as much about it and the work of it as he does, and I do my share of it. Even Mr. Dunne has occasionally honoured me by asking for my opinion. And now I'm left out like a child. It isn't fair."

"From that angle it looks rather raw," he acknowledged. "Still, it's better that you shouldn't know. In that case you can't be forced to give evidence against your own people and your friends."

She glanced at him, a little startled. "What rot, Casey!"

"Not a bit of it. Anything we can do must be against the law. Suspicion will be directed at us from the outset. You must see that."

"Yes, I see it," she assented thoughtfully. "Very well, I'll be good to the extent of not asking questions. But you can't expect me to be deaf and blind."

"Of course not," he assented and began to talk of the ranch work. She listened, making occasional shrewd comments, offering suggestions which showed that she understood such matters thoroughly.

"Why shouldn't we ride around by Chakchak?" she asked. "I haven't seen it for a month, and there's plenty of day left. And then I can go on to Talapus by myself."

"Trying to shake me?"

"No. But why should you trail along with me? I've ridden all over the country alone. I do it every day."

"Hush, Sheila! Let me tell you a secret. I ride with you because I like to."

"Oh, blarney! That's what it is to have a mick ancestry. I suppose I'll have to own up that if I didn't like you to ride with me I wouldn't let you do it."

Casey grinned. Their mutual liking was genuine and so far unsentimental. They were of the same breed—the breed of the pioneer—and their hearts held the same seldom-voiced but deeply rooted love for the same things; the great, sun-washed spaces winnowed by the clean winds, the rosy dawns, violet dusks and nights when the earth scents hung heavy, almost palpable, clinging to the nostrils, the living things of fur and feather bright of eye and wary of habit. But most of all unconsciously they loved and cherished the feeling of room, of space in which to live and breathe and turn freely.

1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse