A ROMANCE OF STRENUOUS AFFECTION
SUGGESTED BY THE PLAY BY REX BEACH AND PAUL ARMSTRONG
ILLUSTRATED BY MARK FENDERSON
Four cowboys inclined their bodies over the barbed-wire fence which marked the dividing-line between the Centipede Ranch and their own, staring mournfully into a summer night such as only the far southwestern country knows. Big yellow stars hung thick and low-so low that it seemed they might almost be plucked by an upstretched hand-and a silent air blew across thousands of open miles of land lying crisp and fragrant under the velvet dark.
And as the four inclined their bodies, they inclined also their ears, after the strained manner of listeners who feel anguish at what they hear. A voice, shrill and human, pierced the night like a needle, then, with a wail of a tortured soul, died away amid discordant raspings: the voice of a phonograph. It was their own, or had been until one overconfident day, when the Flying Heart Ranch had risked it as a wager in a foot-race with the neighboring Centipede, and their own man had been too slow. As it had been their pride, it remained their disgrace. Dearly had they loved, and dearly lost it. It meant something that looked like honor, and though there were ten thousand thousand phonographs, in all the world there was not one that could take its place.
The sound ceased, there was an approving distant murmur of men's voices, and then the song began:
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lift up your voice and sing—"
Higher and higher the voice mounted until it reached again its first thin, ear-splitting pitch.
"Still Bill" Stover stirred uneasily in the darkness. "Why 'n 'ell don't they keep her wound up?" he complained. "Gallagher's got the soul of a wart-hog. It's criminal the way he massacres that hymn."
From a rod farther down the wire fence Willie answered him, in a boy's falsetto:
"I wonder if he does it to spite me?"
"He don't know you're here," said Stover.
The other came out of the gloom, a little stoop-shouldered man with spectacles.
"I ain't noways sure," he piped, peering up at his lanky foreman. "Why do you reckon he allus lets Mrs. Melby peter out on my favorite record? He done the same thing last night. It looks like an insult."
"It's nothing but ignorance," Stover replied. "He don't want no trouble with you. None of 'em do."
"I'd like to know for certain." The small man seemed torn by doubt. "If I only knew he done it a-purpose, I'd git him. I bet I could do it from here."
Stover's voice was gruff as he commanded: "Forget it! Ain't it bad enough for us fellers to hang around like this every night without advertising our idiocy by a gun-play?"
"They ain't got no right to that phonograph," Willie averred, darkly.
"Oh yes, they have; they won it fair and square."
"Fair and square! Do you mean to say Humpy Joe run that foot-race on the square?"
"I never said nothin' like that whatever. I mean we bet it, and we lost it. Listen! There goes Carara's piece!"
Out past the corral floated the announcement in a man's metallic syllables:
"The Baggage Coach Ahead, as sung by Helena Mora for the Echo Phonograph, of New York and Pa-a-aris!"
From the dusk to the right of the two listeners now issued soft Spanish phrases.
"Madre de Dios! 'The Baggage Car in Front!' T'adora Mora! God bless 'er!"
During the rendition of this affecting ballad the two cow-men remained draped uncomfortably over the barbed-wire barrier, lost in rapturous enjoyment. When the last note had died away, Stover roused himself reluctantly.
"It's time we was turnin' in." He called softly, "Hey, Mex!"
"Come on, you and Cloudy. Vamos! It's ten o'clock."
He turned his back on the Centipede Ranch that housed the treasure, and in company with Willie, made his way to the ponies. Two other figures joined them, one humming in a musical baritone the strains of the song just ended.
"Cut that out, Mex! They'll hear us," Stover cautioned.
"Caramba! This t'ing is brek my 'eart," said the Mexican, sadly. "It seem like the Senorita Mora is sing that song to me. Mebbe she knows I'm set out 'ere on cactus an' listen to her. Ah, I love that Senorita ver' much."
The little man with the glasses began to swear in his high falsetto. His ear had caught the phonograph operator in another musical mistake.
"That horn-toad let Mrs. Melby die again to-night," said he. "It's sure comin' to a runnacaboo between him and me. If somebody don't kill him pretty soon, he'll wear out that machine before we git it back."
"Humph! It don't look like we'd ever get it back," said Stover.
One of the four sighed audibly, then vaulting into his saddle, went loping away without waiting for his companions.
"Cloudy's sore because they didn't play Navajo," said Willie. "Well, I don't blame 'em none for omittin' that war- dance. It ain't got the class of them other pieces. While it's devised to suit the intellect of an Injun, perhaps; it ain't in the runnin' with The Holy City, which tune is the sweetest and sacredest ever sung."
Carara paused with a hand upon the neck of his cayuse.
"Eet is not so fine as The Baggage Car in Front," he declared.
"It's got it beat a mile!" Willie flashed back, harshly.
"Here you!" exclaimed Stover, "no arguments. We all have our favorites, and it ain't up to no individual to force his likes and dislikes down no other feller's throat." The two men he addressed mounted their broncos stiffly.
"I repeat," said Willie: "The Holy City, as sung by Mrs. Melby, is the swellest tune that ever hit these parts."
Carara muttered something in Spanish which the others could not understand.
"They're all fine pieces," Stover observed, placatingly, when fairly out of hearing of the ranch-houses. "You boys have each got your preference. Cloudy, bein' an Injun, has got his, and I rise to state that I like that monologue, Silas on Fifth Avenoo, better than all of 'em, which ain't nothin' ag'inst my judgment nor yours. When Silas says, 'The girl opened her valise, took our her purse, closed her valise, opened her purse, took out a dime, closed her purse, opened her valise, put in her purse, closed her valise, give the dime to the conductor, got a nickel in change, then opened her valise, took out her purse, closed her valise-'" Stover began to rock in his saddle, then burst into a loud guffaw, followed by his companions. "Gosh! That's awful funny!"
"Si! si!" acknowledged Carara, his white teeth showing through the gloom.
"An' it's just like a fool woman," tittered Willie. "That's sure one ridic'lous line of talk."
"Still Bill" wiped his eyes with the back of a bony hand. "I know that hull monologue by heart, but I can't never get past that spot to save my soul. Right there I bog down, complete." Again he burst into wild laughter, followed by his companions. "I don't see how folks can be so dam' funny!" he gasped.
"It's natural to 'em, like warts," said Willie; "they're born with it, the same as I was born to shoot straight with either hand, and the same as the Mex was born to throw a rope. He don't know how he does it, and neither do I. Some folks can say funny things, some can sing, like Missus Melby; some can run foot- races, like that Centipede cook—" Carara breathed an eloquent Mexican oath.
"Do you reckon he fixed that race with Humpy Joe?" inquired Stover.
"Name's Skinner," Willie observed. "It sure sounds bad."
"I'm sorry Humpy left us so sudden," said Still Bill. "We'd ought to have questioned him. If we only had proof that the race was crooked—"
"You can so gamble it was crooked," the little man averred. "Them Centipede fellers never done nothin' on the square. They got Humpy Joe, and fixed it for him to lose so they could get that talkin'-machine. That's why he pulled out."
"I'd hate to think it," said the foreman, gloomily; then after a moment, during which the only sound was that of the muffled hoof- beats: "Well, what we goin' to do about it?"
"Humph! I've laid awake nights figurin' that out. I reckon we'll just have to git another foot-racer and beat Skinner. He ain't the fastest in the world."
"That takes coin. We're broke."
"Mebbe Mr. Chapin would lend a helpin' hand."
"No chance!" said Stover, grimly. "He's sore on foot-racin'. Says it disturbs us and upsets our equalubrium."
Carara fetched a deep sigh.
"It's ver' bad t'ing, Senor. I don' feel no worse w'en my gran'mother die."
The three men loped onward through the darkness, weighted heavily with disappointment.
Affairs at the Flying Heart Ranch were not all to Jack Chapin's liking. Ever since that memorable foot-race, more than a month before, a gloom had brooded over the place which even the presence of two Smith College girls, not to mention that of Mr. Fresno, was unable to dissipate. The cowboys moped about like melancholy shades, and neglected their work to discuss the disgrace that had fallen upon them. It was a task to get any of them out in the morning, several had quit, the rest were quarrelling among themselves, and the bunk-house had already been the scene of more than one encounter, altogether too sanguinary to have originated from such a trivial cause as a foot-race. It was not exactly an auspicious atmosphere in which to entertain a houseful of college boys and girls, all unversed in the ways of the West.
The master of the ranch sought his sister Jean, to tell her frankly what was on his mind.
"See here, Sis," he began, "I don't want to cast a cloud over your little house-party, but I think you'd better keep your friends away from my men."
"Why, what is the matter?" she demanded.
"Things are at a pretty high tension just now, and the boys have had two or three rows among themselves. Yesterday Fresno tried to 'kid' Willie about The Holy City; said it was written as a coon song, and wasn't sung in good society. If he hadn't been a guest, I guess Willie would have murdered him."
"Oh, Jack! You won't let Willie murder anybody, not even Berkeley, while the people are here, will you?" coaxed Miss Chapin, anxiously.
"What made you invite Berkeley Fresno, anyhow?" was the rejoinder. "This is no gilded novelty to him. He is a Western man."
Miss Chapin numbered her reasons sagely. "In the first place— Helen. Then there had to be enough men to go around. Last and best, he is the most adorable man I ever saw at a house-party. He's an angel at breakfast, sings perfectly beautifully—you know he was on the Stanford Glee Club—"
"Humph!" Jack was unimpressed. "If you roped him for Helen Blake to brand, why have you sent for Wally Speed?"
"Well, you see, Berkeley and Helen didn't quite hit it off, and Mr. Speed is—a friend of Culver's." Miss Chapin blushed prettily.
"Oh, I see! I thought myself that this affair had something to do with you and Culver Covington, but I didn't know it had lapsed into a sort of matrimonial round-up. Suppose Miss Blake shouldn't care for Speed after he gets here?"
"Oh, but she will! That's where Berkeley Fresno comes in. When two men begin to fight for her, she'll have to begin to form a preference, and I'm sure it will be for Wally Speed. Don't you see?"
The brother looked at his sister shrewdly. "It seems to me you learned a lot at Smith."
Jean tossed her head. "How absurd! That sort of knowledge is perfectly natural for a girl to have." Then she teased: "But you admit that my selection of a chaperon was excellent, don't you, Jack?"
"Mrs. Keap and I are the best of friends," Jack averred, with supreme dignity. "I'm not in the market, and a man doesn't marry a widow, anyhow. It's too old and experienced a beginning."
"Nonsense! Roberta Keap is only twenty-three. Why, she hardly knew her husband, even! It was one of those sudden, impulsive affairs that would overwhelm any girl who hadn't seen a man for four years. And then he enlisted in the Spanish War, and was killed."
"Roberta, you know, is my best friend, after Helen. Do be nice to her, Jack." Miss Chapin sighed. "It is too bad the others couldn't come."
"Yes, a small house-party has its disadvantages. By-the-way, what's that gold thing on your frock?"
"It's a medal. Culver sent it to me."
"Yes, he won the intercollegiate championship again." Miss Chapin proudly extended the emblem on its ribbon.
"I wish to goodness Covington had been here to take Humpy Joe's place," said the young cattle-man as he turned it over. "The boys are just brokenhearted over losing that phonograph."
"I'll get him to run and win it back," Jean offered, easily. Her brother laughed. "Take my advice, Sis, and don't let Culver mix up in this game! The stakes are too high. I think that Centipede cook is a professional runner, myself, and if our boys were beaten again—well, you and mother and I would have to move out of New Mexico, that's all. No, we'd better let the memory of that defeat die out as quickly as possible. You warn Fresno not to joke about it any more, and I'll take Mrs. Keap off your hands. She may be a widow, she may even be the chaperon, but I'll do it; I will do it," promised Jack—"for my sister's sake."
Helen Blake was undeniably bored. The sultry afternoon was very long—longer even than Berkeley Fresno's autobiography, and quite as dry. It was too hot and dusty to ride, so she took refuge in the latest "best seller," and sought out a hammock on the vine- shaded gallery, where Jean Chapin was writing letters, while the disconsolate Fresno, banished, wandered at large, vaguely injured at her lack of appreciation.
Absent-mindedly, the girls dipped into the box of bonbons between them. Jean finished her correspondence and essayed conversation, but her companion's blond head was bowed over the book in her lap, and the effort met with no response. Lulled by the somniferous droning of insects and lazy echoes from afar, Miss Chapin was on the verge of slumber, when she saw her guest rapidly turn the last pages of her novel, then, with a chocolate between her teeth, read wide-eyed to the finish. Miss Blake closed the book reluctantly, uncurled slowly, then stared out through the dancing heat-waves, her blue eyes shadowed with romance.
"Did she marry him?" queried Jean.
"No, no!" Helen Blake sighed, blissfully. "It was infinitely finer. She killed herself."
"I like to see them get married."
"Naturally. You are at that stage. But I think suicide is more glorious, in many cases."
Miss Chapin yawned openly. "Speaking of suicides, isn't this ranch the deadest place?"
"Oh, I don't think so at all." Miss Blake picked her way fastidiously through the bonbons, nibbling tentatively at several before making her choice. "Oh yes, you do, and you needn't be polite just because you're a guest." "Well, then, to be as truthful as a boarder, it is a little dull. Not for our chaperon, though. The time doesn't seem to drag on her hands. Jack certainly is making it pleasant for her."
"If you call taking her out to watch a lot of bellowing calves get branded, entertainment," Miss Chapin sighed.
"I wonder what makes widows so fascinating?" observed the youthful Miss Blake.
"I hope I never find out." Jean clutched nervously at the gold medal on her dress. "Wouldn't that be dreadful!"
"My dear, Culver seems perfectly healthy. Why worry?"
"I—I wish he were here."
Miss Blake leaned forward and read the inscription on her companion's medal. "Oh, isn't it heavy!" feeling it reverently.
"Pure gold, like himself! You should have seen him when he won it. Why, at the finish of that race all the men but Culver were making the most horrible faces. They were simply dead."
Miss Blake's hands were clasped in her lap. "They all make faces," said she. "Have you told Roberta about your engagement?"
"No, she doesn't dream of it, and I don't want her to know. I'm so afraid she'll think, now that mother has gone, that I asked her here just as a chaperon. Perhaps I'll tell her when Culver comes."
"I adore athletes. I wouldn't give a cent for a man who wasn't athletic."
"Does Mr. Speed go in for that sort of thing?"
"Rather! The day we met at the Yale games he had medals all over him, and that night at the dance he used the most wonderful athletic language—we could scarcely understand him. Mr. Covington must have told you all about him; they are chums, you know."
Miss Chapin furrowed her brows meditatively.
"I have heard Culver speak of him, but never as an athlete. Have you and Mr. Speed settled things between you, Helen? I mean, has he—said anything?"
Miss Blake flushed.
"Not exactly." She adjusted a cushion to cover her confusion, then leaned back complacently. "But he has stuttered dangerously several times."
A musical tinkle of silver spurs sounded in the distance, and around the corner of the cook-house opposite came Carara, the Mexican, his wide, spangled sombrero tipped rakishly over one ear, a corn-husk cigarette drooping from his lips. Evidently his presence was inspired by some special motive, for he glanced sharply about, and failing to detect the two girls behind the distant screen of vines, removed his cigarette and whistled thrice, like a quail, then, leaning against the adobe wall, curled his black silken mustaches to needle-points.
"It's that romantic Spaniard!" whispered Helen. "What does he want?"
"It's his afternoon call on Mariedetta, the maid," said Jean. "They meet there twice a day, morning and afternoon."
"A lovers' tryst!" breathed Miss Blake, eagerly. "Isn't he graceful and picturesque! Can we watch them?"
"'Sh-h! There she comes!"
From the opposite direction appeared a slim, swarthy Mexican girl, an Indian water-jug balanced upon her shoulders. She was clad in the straight-hanging native garment, belted in with a sash; her feet were in sandals, and she moved as silently as a shadow.
During the four days since Miss Blake's arrival at the Flying Heart Ranch she had seen Mariedetta flitting noiselessly here and there, but had never heard her speak. The pretty, expressionless face beneath its straight black hair had ever retained its wooden stolidity, the velvety eyes had not laughed nor frowned nor sparkled. She seemed to be merely a part of this far southwestern picture; a bit of inanimate yet breathing local color. Now, however, the girl dropped her jug, and with a low cry glided to her lover, who tossed aside his cigarette and took her in his arms. From this distance their words were indistinguishable.
"How perfectly romantic," said the Eastern girl, breathlessly. "I had no idea Mariedetta could love anybody."
"She is a volcano," Jean answered.
"Why, it's like a play!"
"And it goes on all the time."
"How gentle and sweet he is! I think he is charming. He is not at all like the other cowboys, is he?"
While the two witnesses of the scene were eagerly discussing it, Joy, the Chinese cook, emerged from the kitchen bearing a bucket of water, his presence hidden from the lovers by the corner of the building. Carara languidly released his inamorata from his embrace and lounged out of sight around the building, pausing at the farther corner to waft her a graceful kiss from the ends of his fingers, as with a farewell flash of his white teeth he disappeared. Mariedetta recovered her water-jug and glided onward into the court in front of the cook-house, her face masklike, her movements deliberate as usual. Joy, spying the girl, grinned at her. She tossed her head coquettishly and her step slackened, whereupon the cook, with a sly glance around, tapped her gently on the arm, and said:
"Nice l'il gally."
"The idea!" indignantly exclaimed Miss Blake from her hammock.
But Mariedetta was not offended. Instead she smiled over her shoulder as she had smiled at her lover an instant before.
"Me like you fine. You like pie?" Joy nodded toward the door to the culinary department, as if to make free of his hospitality, at the instant that Carara, who had circled the building, came into view from the opposite side, a fresh cigarette between his lips. His languor vanished at the first glimpse of the scene, and he strode toward the white-clad Celestial, who dove through the open door like a prairie dog into its hole. Carara followed at his heels.
"It serves him right!" cried Miss Blake, rising. "I hope Mr. Carara—"
A din of falling pots and pans issued from the cook-house, mingled with shrill cries and soft Spanish imprecations; then, with one long-drawn wail, the pandemonium ceased as suddenly as it had commenced, and Carara issued forth, black with anger.
"Ha!" said he, scowling 'at Mariedetta, who had retreated, her hand upon her bosom. He exhaled a lungful of cigarette smoke through his nostrils fiercely. "You play wit' me, eh?"
"No! no!" Mariedetta ran to him, and, seizing his arm, cooed amorously in Spanish.
"Bah! Vamos!" Carara flung her from him, and stalked away.
"Well, of all the outrageous things!" said Miss Blake. "Why, she was actually flirting with that Chinaman."
"Mariedetta flirts with every man she can find," said Jean, calmly, "but she doesn't mean any harm. She'll marry Carara some time—if he doesn't kill her."
"Kill her!" Miss Blake's eyes were round. "He wouldn't do that!"
"Indeed, yes. He is a Mexican, and he has a terrible temper."
Miss Blake sank back into the hammock. "How perfectly dreadful! And yet-it must be heavenly to love a man who would kill you."
Miss Chapin lost herself in meditation for an instant. "Culver is almost like that when he is angry. Hello, here comes our foreman!"
Stover, a tall, gangling cattle-man with drooping grizzled mustache, came shambling up to the steps. His weather-beaten chaps were much too short for his lengthy limbs, the collar of his faded flannel shirt lacked an inch of meeting at the throat, its sleeves were shrunken until his hairy hands hung down like tassels. He was loose and spineless, his movements tempered with the slothfulness of the far Southwest. His appearance gave one the impression that ready-made garments are never long enough. He dusted his boots with his sombrero and cleared his throat.
"'Evening, Miss Jean. Is Mr. Chapin around?"
"I think you'll find him down by the spring-house. Can I do anything for you?"
"Nope!" Stover sighed heavily, and got his frame gradually into motion again.
"You're not looking well, Stover. Are you ill?" inquired Miss Chapin.
"Not physical," said the foreman, checking the movement which had not yet communicated itself the entire length of his frame. "I reckon my sperret's broke, that's all."
"Haven't you recovered from that foot-race?"
"I have not, and I never will, so long as that ornery Centipede outfit has got it on us."
"What have they done?" inquired Miss Blake, curiously. "I haven't heard about any foot-race."
"You tell her," said the man, with another sigh, and a hopeless gesture that told the depth of his feelings.
"Why, Stover hired a fellow a couple of months ago as a horse- wrangler. The man said he was hungry, and made a good impression, so we put him on."
Here Stover slowly raised one booted foot and kicked his other calf. "The boys nicknamed him Humpy Joe—"
"Why, poor thing! Was he humpbacked?" inquired Helen.
"No," answered Still Bill. "Humpback is lucky. We called him Humpy Joe because when it came to running he could sure get up and hump himself."
"Soon after Joseph went to work," Jean continued, "the Centipede outfit hired a new cook. You know the Centipede Ranch—the one you see over yonder by the foot-hills."
"It wasn't 'soon after,' it was simuletaneous," said Stover, darkly. "We're beginnin' to see plain at last." He went on as if to air the injury that was gnawing him. "One day we hear that this grub-slinger over yonder thinks he can run, which same is as welcome to us as the smell of flowers on a spring breeze, for Humpy Joe had amused us in his idle hours by running jack-rabbits to earth—"
"Not really?" said Miss Blake.
"Well, no, but from what we see we judge he'd ought to limp a hundred yards in about nothing and three-fifths seconds, so we frame a race between him and the Centipede cook."
"As a matter of fact, there has been a feud for years between the two outfits," Jean offered.
"With tumulchous joy we bet our wages and all the loose gear we have, and in a burst of childish enthusiasm we put up—the talking-machine."
"Yes. An Echo Phonograph," said Miss Chapin.
"Of New York and Paris," added Stover.
"Our boys won it from this very Centipede outfit at a bronco- busting tournament in Cheyenne."
"Wyoming." Stover made the location definite.
"The Centipede crowd took their defeat badly on Frontier Day, and swore to get even."
"And was Humpy Joe defeated?" asked Helen.
"Was he?" Still Bill shook his head sadly, and sighed for a third time. "It looked like he was running backward, miss."
"But really he was only beaten a foot. It was a wonderful race. I saw it," said Jean. "It made me think of the races at college."
Miss Blake puckered her brows trying to think.
"Joseph," she said. "No, I don't think I have seen him."
Stover's lips met grimly. "I don't reckon you have, miss. Since that race he has been hard to descry. He passed from view hurriedly, so to speak, headed toward the foot-hills, and leaping from crag to crag like the hardy shamrock of the Swiss Yelps."
Miss Blake giggled. "What made him hurry so?"
"Us!" Stover gazed at her solemnly. "We ain't none of us been the same since that foot-race. You see, it ain't the financial value of that Echo Phonograph, nor the 'double-cross' that hurts: it's the fact that the mangiest outfit in the Territory has trimmed us out of the one thing that stands for honor and excellence and 'scientific attainment,' as the judge said when we won it. That talking-machine meant more to us than you Eastern folks can understand, I reckon."
"If I were you I would cheer up," said Miss Blake, kindly, and with some importance. "Miss Chapin has a college friend coming this week, and he can win back your trophy."
Stover glanced up at Jean quickly.
"Is that right, Miss Chapin?"
"He can if he will," Jean asserted.
"Can he run?"
"He is the intercollegiate champion," declared that young lady, with proud dignity.
"And do you reckon he'd run for us and the Echo Phonograph of New York and Paris, if we framed a race? It's an honor!"
But Miss Chapin suddenly recalled her brother's caution of the day before, and hesitated.
"I—I don't think he would. You see, he is an amateur—he might be out of training—"
"The idea!" exclaimed Miss Blake, indignantly. "If Culver won't run, I know who will!" She closed her lips firmly, and turned to the foreman. "You tell your friends that we'll see you get your trophy back."
"I mean it!" declared Miss Blake, with spirit.
Stover bowed loosely. "Thank you, miss. The very thought of it will cheer up the gang. Life 'round here is blacker 'n a spade flush. I think I'll tell Willie." He shambled rapidly off around the house.
"Helen dear, I don't want Culver to get mixed up in this affair," explained Miss Chapin, as soon as they were alone. "It's all utterly foolish. Jack doesn't want him to, either."
"Very well. If Culver doesn't feel that he can beat that cook running, I know who will try. Mr. Speed will do anything I ask. It's a shame the way those men have been treated."
"But Mr. Speed isn't a sprinter."
"Indeed!" Miss Blake bridled. "Perhaps Culver Covington isn't the only athlete in Yale College. I happen to know what I'm talking about. Naturally the two boys have never competed against each other, because they are friends—Mr. Speed isn't the sort to race his room-mate. Oh! he wouldn't tell me he could run if it were not true."
"I don't think he will consent when he learns the truth."
"I assure you," said Miss Blake, sweetly, "he will be delighted."
It was still early in the afternoon when Jack Chapin and the youthful chaperon found the other young people together on the gallery.
"Here's a telegram from Speed," began Jack.
"It's terribly funny," said Mrs. Keap. "That Mexican brought it to us down at the spring-house."
Miss Blake lost her bored expression, and sat up in the hammock.
"'Mr. Jack Chapin,'" read the owner of the Flying Heart Ranch. "'Dear Jack: I couldn't wait for Covington, so meet with brass- band and fireworks this afternoon. Have flowers in bloom in the little park beside the depot, and see that the daisies nod to me.—J. Wallingford Speed.'"
"Park, eh?" said Fresno, dryly. "Telegraph office, water-tank, and a cattle-chute. Where does this fellow think he is?"
"Here is a postscript," added Chapin.
"'I have a valet who does not seem to enjoy the trip. Divide a kiss among the girls.'"
"Well, well! He's stingy with his kisses," observed Berkeley. "Who is this humorous party?"
"He was a Freshman at Yale the year I graduated," explained Jack.
"Too bad he never got out of that class." It was evident that Mr. Speed's levity made no impression upon the Glee Club tenor. "He hates to talk about himself, doesn't he?"
"I think he is very clever," said Miss Blake, warmly.
"How well do you know him?"
"Not as well as I'd like to."
Fresno puffed at his little pipe without remarking at this.
"Well, who wants to go and meet him?" queried Jack.
"Won't you?" asked his sister.
"I can't. I've just got word from the Eleven X that I'm wanted. The foreman is hurt. I may not be back for some time."
"Nigger Mike met me," observed Fresno, darkly.
"Then Nigger Mike for Speed," laughed the cattle-man. "I've told Carara to hitch up the pintos for me. I must be going."
"I'll see that you are safely started," said the young widow; and leaving the trio on the gallery, they entered the house.
When they had gone, Jean smiled wisely at Helen. "Roberta's such a thoughtful chaperon," she observed, whereupon Miss Blake giggled.
As for Mrs. Keap, she was inquiring of Jack with genuine solicitude:
"Do you really mean that you may be gone for some time?"
"I do. It may be a week; it may be longer; I can't tell until I get over there."
"I'm sorry." Mrs. Keap's face showed some disappointment.
"So am I."
"I shall have to look out for these young people all by myself."
"What a queer little way you have of talking, as if you were years and years old."
"I do feel as if I were. I—I—well, I have had an unhappy experience. You know unhappiness builds months into years."
"When Jean got up this house-party," young Chapin began, absently, "I thought I should be bored to death. But—I haven't been. You know, I don't want to go over there?" He nodded vaguely toward the south.
"I thought perhaps it suited your convenience." His companion watched him gravely. "Are you quite sure that your sister's guests have not—had something to do with this sudden determination?"
"I am quite sure. I never liked the old Flying Heart so much as I do to-day. I never regretted leaving it so much as I do at this moment."
"We may be gone before you return."
Young Chapin started. "You don't mean that, really?" Mrs. Keap nodded her dark head. "It was all very well for me to chaperon Helen on the way out from the East, but—it isn't exactly regular for me to play that part here with other young people to look after."
"But you understand, of course—Jean must have explained to you. Mother was called away suddenly, and she can't get back now. You surely won't leave—you can't." Chapin added, hopefully: "Why, you would break up Jean's party. You see, there's nobody around here to take your place."
"Nonsense! This is an unconventional country. What's wrong with you as a chaperon, anyway? Nobody out here even knows what a chaperon is. And I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Do you really think that would help?" Roberta's eyes laughed humorously.
"I'm not thinking of the others, I'm thinking of myself," declared the young man, boldly. "I don't want you to go before I return. You must not! If you go, I—I shall follow you." He grasped her hand impulsively.
"Oh!" exclaimed the chaperon. "This makes it even more impossible. Go! Go!" She pushed him away, her color surging. "Go to your old Eleven X Ranch right away."
"But I mean it," he declared, earnestly. Then, as she retreated farther: "It's no use, I sha'n't go now until—"
"You have known me less than a week!"
"That is long enough. Roberta—"
Mrs. Keap spoke with honest embarrassment. "Listen! Don't you see what a situation this is? If Jean and Helen should ever discover—"
"Jean planned it all; even this."
Mrs. Keap stared at him in horrified silence.
"You do love me, Roberta?" Chapin undertook to remove the girl's hands from her face, when a slight cough in the hall behind caused him to turn suddenly in time to see Berkeley Fresno passing the open door.
"There! You see!" Mrs. Keap's face was tragic. "You see!" She turned and fled, leaving the master of the ranch in the middle of the floor, bewildered, but a bit inclined to be happy. A moment later the plump face of Berkeley Fresno appeared cautiously around the door-jamb. He coughed again gravely.
"I happened to be passing," said he. "You'll pardon me?"
"This is the most thickly settled spot in New Mexico!" Chapin declared, with an artificial laugh, choking his indignation.
Fresno slowly brought his round body out from concealment.
"I came in to get a match."
"Why don't you carry matches?"
Fresno puffed complacently upon his pipe. "This," he mused, as his host departed, "eliminates the chaperon, and that helps some."
Still Bill Stover lost no time in breaking the news to the boys.
"There's something comin' off," he advised Willie. "We've got another foot-runner!"
If he had hoped for an outburst of rapture on the part of the little gun man he was disappointed, for Willie shifted his holster, smiled evilly through his glasses, and inquired, with ominous restraint:
"Where is he?"
Being the one man on the Flying Heart who had occasion to wear a gun, Willie seldom smiled from a sense of humor. Here it may be said that, deceived at first by his scholarly appearance, his fellow-laborers had jibed at Willie's affectation of a swinging holster, but the custom had languished abruptly. When it became known who he was, the other ranch-hands had volubly declared that this was a free country, where a man might exercise a wide discretion in the choice of personal adornment; and as for them, they avowed unanimously that the practice of packing a Colts was one which met with their most cordial approbation. In time Willie's six-shooter had become accepted as a part of the local scenery, and, like the scenery, no one thought of remarking upon it, least of all those who best knew his lack of humor. He had come to them out of the Nowhere, some four years previously, and while he never spoke of himself, and discouraged reminiscence in others, it became known through those vague uncharted channels by which news travels on the frontier, that back in the Texas Panhandle there was a limping marshal who felt regrets at mention of his name, and that farther north were other men who had a superstitious dread of undersized cow-men with spectacles. There were also stories of lonesome "run-ins," which, owing to Willie's secretiveness and the permanent silence of the other participants, never became more than intangible rumors. But he was a good ranchman, attended to his business, and the sheriff's office was remote, so Willie had worked on unmolested.
"This here is a real foot-runner," said Stover.
"Exactly," agreed the other. "Where is he?"
"He'll be here this afternoon. Nigger Mike's bringin' him over from the railroad. He's a guest."
"Yep! He's intercollegit champeen of Yale."
"Yale?" repeated the near-sighted man. "Don't know's I ever been there. Much of a town?"
"I ain't never travelled East myself, but Miss Jean and the little yaller-haired girl say he's the fastest man in the world. I figgered we might rib up something with the Centipede." Still Bill winked sagely.
"See here, do you reckon he'd run?"
"Sure! He's a friend of the boss. And he'll run on the level, too. He can't be nothin' like Humpy."
"If he is, I'll git him," said the cowboy. "Oh, I'll git him sure, guest or no guest. But how about the phonograph?"
"The Centipede will put it up quick enough; there ain't no sentiment in that outfit."
"Then it sounds good."
"An' it'll work. Gallagher's anxious to trim us again. Some folks can't stand prosperity."
Willie spat unerringly at a grasshopper. "Lord!" said he, "it's too good! It don't sound possible."
"Well, it is, and our man will be here this evenin'. Watch out for Nigger Mike, and when he drives up let's give this party a welcome that'll warm his heart on the jump. There's nothin' like a good impression."
"I'll be on the job," assured Willie. "But I state right here and now, if we do get a race there ain't a-goin' to be no chance of our losin' for a second time."
And Stover went on his way to spread the tidings.
It was growing dark when the rattle of wheels outside the ranch- house brought the occupants to the porch in time to see Nigger Mike halt his buck-board and two figures prepare to descend.
"It's Mr. Speed!" cried Miss Blake. Then she uttered a scream as the velvet darkness was rent by a dozen tongues of flame, while a shrill yelping arose, as of an Apache war-party.
"It's the boys," said Jean. "What on earth has possessed them?"
But Stover had planned no ordinary reception, and the pandemonium did not cease until the men had emptied their weapons.
Then Mr. J. Wallingford Speed came stumbling up the steps and into the arms of his friends, the tails of his dust-coat streaming.
"Really? This is more than I expected," he gasped; then turning, doffed his straw hat to the half-revealed figures beyond the light, and cried, gayly: "Thank you, gentlemen! Thank you for missing me!"
"Yow—ee!" responded the cowboys.
"How do you do, Miss Chapin!" Speed shook hands with his hostess, and in the radiance from the open doorway she saw that his face was round and boyish, and his smile peculiarly engaging.
She welcomed him appropriately; then said: "This reception is quite as startling to us as to you. You know, Mr. Speed, that we have with us a friend of yours." She slightly drew Helen forward. "And this is Mrs. Keap, who is looking after us a bit while mother is away. Roberta, may I present Mr. Covington's friend, and ask you to be good to him?"
"Don't forget me," said Fresno, pushing into the light.
"Mr. Berkeley Fresno, of Leland Stanford University."
"Hello, Frez!" Speed thrust out his hand warmly. Not so the Californian. He replied, with hauteur:
"Fresno! F-r-e-s-n-o"; and allowed the new-comer to grasp a limp, moist hand.
"Ah! Go to the head of the class! I'm sorry you broke your wrist, however." The Eastern lad spoke lightly, and gave the palm a hearty squeeze, then turned to Jean.
"I dare say you are all disappointed, Miss Chapin, that Culver didn't come with me, but he'll be along in a day or so. I simply couldn't wait." He avoided glancing at Helen Blake, whose answering blush was lost in the darkness.
"I did think when you drove up that might be Mr. Covington with you," Miss Chapin remarked, wistfully.
"Oh no, that's my man." Speed glanced around him. "And, by-the- way, where is he?"
The sound of angry voices came through the gloom, then out into the light came Still Bill Stover, Willie, and Carara, dragging between them a globular person who was rebelling loudly.
"Stover, what is this?" questioned Miss Chapin, stepping to the edge of the veranda.
"This gent stampedes in the midst of our welcome," explained the foreman, "so we have to rope him before he gets away." It was seen now that Carara's lariat was tightly drawn about the new arrival's waist.
Then the valet broke into coherent speech, but he spoke a tongue not common to his profession.
"Nix on that welcome stuff," he burst forth, in husky, alcoholic accents; "that goes on the door-mat!" It was plain that he was very angry. "If that racket means welcome, I don't want it. Take that clothes-line off of me." Carara loosened the noose, and his captive rolled up the steps mopping his face with his handkerchief.
"What made you run away?" demanded Speed.
"Any time a bunch of bandits unhitch their gats, I'm on my way," sputtered the fat man. "I'm gun-shy, see? And when this hold-up comes off I beat it till that Cuban rummy with the medals on his dicer rides a live horse up my back."
"You don't appreciate the honor," explained his employer; then turning to the others, he announced: "Will you allow me to introduce Mr. Lawrence Glass? He isn't really a valet, you know, Miss Chapin, and he doesn't care for the West yet. It is his first trip."
"I have heard my brother speak of Larry Glass," said Jean, graciously.
Mr. Glass courtesied awkwardly, and swinging his right foot back of his left, tapped the floor with his toe. "You were a trainer at Yale when Jack was there?"
"That's me," Mr. Glass wheezed. "I'm there with the big rub, too. Wally said he was going to train during vacation, so he staked me to a trip out here, and I came along to look after him."
"Come into the house," said Jean. "Stover will see to your baggage."
As they entered, Mr. Berkeley Fresno saw the late arrival bend over Helen Blake, and heard him murmur:
"The same unforgettable eyes of Italian blue."
And Mr. Fresno decided to dislike Wally Speed, even if it required an effort.
It was on the following morning that Miss Blake made bold to request her favor from J. Wallingford Speed. They had succeeded in isolating themselves upon the vine-shaded gallery at the rear of the house, and the conversation had been largely of athletics, but this, judging from the rapt expression of the girl, was a subject of surpassing interest. Speed, quick to take a cue, plunged on.
"I would have made the Varsity basket-ball team myself if I hadn't been so tiny," said Helen. "I have always wanted to be tall, like Roberta."
"I shouldn't care for that," said the young man. "You know she was a wonderful player?"
"So I've heard."
"Do you know," mused Helen, "I have never forgotten what you told me that first day we met. I think it was perfectly lovely of you."
"What was that?" Now it must be admitted that J. Wallingford Speed, in his relations with the other sex, frequently found himself in a position requiring mental gymnastics of a high order; but, as a rule, his memory was good, and he seldom crossed his own trail, so to speak. In this instance he was utterly without remembrance, however, and hence was non-committal.
"What you told me about your friendship for Mr. Covington. I think it is very unselfish of you."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," ventured the young man, vainly racking his brain. "Nobody could help liking Culver."
"Yes; but how many men would step aside and let their best friend win prize after prize and never undertake to compete against him?" Speed blushed faintly, as any modest man might have done.
"Did I tell you that?" he inquired.
"Indeed you did."
"Then please don't speak of it to a mortal soul. I must have said a great deal that first day, but—"
"But I have spoken of it, and I said I thought it was fine of you."
"You have spoken of it?"
"Yes; I told Jean."
The Yale man undertook to change the conversation abruptly, but Miss Blake was a determined young lady. She continued:
"Of course, it was very magnanimous of you to always step aside in favor of your best friend; but it isn't fair to yourself—it really isn't. And so I have arranged a little plan whereby you can do something to prove your prowess, and still not interfere with Mr. Covington in the least."
Speed cleared his throat nervously. "Tell me," he said, "what it is."
And Miss Blake told him the story of the shocking treachery of Humpy Joe, together with the miserable undoing of the Flying Heart. "Why, those poor fellows are broken-hearted," she concluded. "Their despair over losing that talking-machine would be funny if it were not so tragic. I told them you would win it back for them. And you will, won't you? Please!" She turned her blue eyes upon him appealingly, and the young man was lost.
"I'll take ten chances," he said. "Where does the raffle come off?"
"Oh, it isn't a raffle, it's a foot-race. You must run with that Centipede cook."
"I! Run a race!" exclaimed the young college man, aghast.
"Yes, I've promised that you would. You see, this isn't like a college event, and Culver isn't here yet."
"But he'll be here in a day or so." Speed felt as if a very large man were choking him; he decided his collar was too tight.
"Oh, I've talked it all over with Jean. She doesn't want Culver to run, anyhow."
"Why not?" inquired he, suspiciously.
"I don't know, I'm sure."
"If Miss Chapin doesn't want Culver to run, you surely wouldn't want me to."
"Not at all. If Mr. Covington knew the facts of the case, he would be only too happy to do it. And, you see, you know the facts."
Speed was about to shape a gracious but firm refusal of the proffered honor when Still Bill Stover appeared at the steps, doffed his faded Stetson, and bowed limply.
"Mornin', Miss Blake." To the rear Speed saw three other men—an Indian, tall, swart, and saturnine, who walked with a limp; a picturesque Mexican with a spangled hat and silver spurs, evidently the captor of Lawrence Glass on the evening previous; and an undersized little man with thick-rimmed spectacles and a heavy-hanging holster from which peeped a gun-butt. All were smiling pleasantly, and seemed a bit abashed.
"Good-morning, Mr. Stover," said Helen, pleasantly. "This is Mr. Speed, of whom I spoke to you yesterday." Stover bowed again and mumbled something about the honor of this meeting, and Miss Blake cast her eyes over the other members of the group, saying, graciously: "I'm afraid I can't introduce your friends; I haven't met them."
The loquacious foreman came promptly to the rescue, rejoicing in an opportunity of displaying his oratorical gifts.
"Then I'll make you acquainted with the best brandin' outfit in these parts." He waved a long, bony arm at the Mexican, who flashed his white teeth. "This Greaser is Aurelio Maria Carara. Need I say he's Mex, and a preemeer roper?" Carara bowed, and swept the ground with his high-peaked head-piece. "The Maduro gent yonder is Mr. Cloudy. His mother being a Navajo squaw, named him, accordin' to the rights and customs of her tribe, selecting the title of Cloudy-but-the-Sun-Shines, which same has proved a misnomer, him bein' a pessimist for fair."
Miss Blake and her companion smiled and nodded, at which Stover, encouraged beyond measure, elaborated.
"He's had a hist'ry, too. When he reaches man's real-estate the Injun agent ropes, throws, and hog-ties him, then sends him East to be cultivated. He spends four years kickin' a football—" Speed interrupted, with an exclamation of genuine interest.
"Oh, it's true as gospel," the foreman averred. "When he goes lame in his off leg they ship him back, and in spite of them handicaps he has become one rustlin' savage at a round-up."
"What college did you attend?" inquired Speed, politely. The question fell upon unresponsive ears. Cloudy did not stir nor alter the direction of his sombre glance.
"He don' talk none," Stover explained. "Conversation, which I esteem as a gift deevine, is a lost art with him. I reckon he don't average a word a week. What language he did know he has forgot, and what he ain't forgot he distrusts."
Turning to the near-sighted man who had been staring at the college youth meanwhile, the spokesman took a deep breath, and said, simply yet proudly, as if describing the piece de resistance of this exhibition:
"The four-eyed gent is Willie, plain Willie, a born range-rider, and the best hip shot this side of the Santa Fe trail!"
Speed beheld an undersized man of indeterminate age, hollow- chested, thin-faced, gravely benignant. It was not alone his glasses that lent him a scholarly appearance; he had the stooped shoulders, the thoughtful intensity of gaze, the gentle, hesitating backwardness of a book-raised man. There were tutors at Yale quite as colorless, characterless and indefinite, and immensely more forceful. In place of the revolver at his belt, it seemed as if Willie should have carried a geologist's pick, a butterfly-net, or a magnifying-glass: one was prepared to hear him speak learnedly of microscopy, or even, perhaps, of settlement work. As a cowboy he was utterly out of place, and it was quite impossible to take Stover's words seriously. Nevertheless, Speed acknowledged the introduction pleasantly, while the benevolent little man blinked back of his lenses. Stover addressed himself to Miss Blake.
"I told the boys what you said, miss, and we four has come as a delegation to find out if it goes."
"Mr. Speed and I were just talking about it when you came," said Helen. "I'm sure he will consent if you add your entreaties to mine."
"It would sure be a favor," said the cow-man, at which the others drew nearer, as if hanging on Speed's answer. Even Cloudy turned his black eyes upon the young man.
The object of their co-operate gaze shifted his feet uncomfortably and felt minded to flee, but the situation would not permit of it. Besides, the affair interested him. His mind was working rapidly, albeit his words were hesitating.
"I—I'm afraid I'm not in shape to run," he ventured. But Stover would have none of this modesty, admirable as it might appear.
"Oh, I talked with your trainer just now. I told him you was tipped off to us as a sprinter."
"What did he say?" inquired Speed, with alarm.
"He said 'no' at first, till I told him who let it out; then he laughed, and said he guessed you was a runner, but you didn't work at it regular. I asked him how good you was, and he said none of the college teams would let you run. That's good enough for us, Mr. Speed."
"But I'm not in condition," objected the youth, with a sigh of gratitude at Glass's irony.
"I reckon he knows more about that than you do. We covered that point too, and Mr. Glass said you was never better than you are right now. Anyhow, you don't have to bust no records to beat this cook. He ain't so fast."
"It would sure be a kind-hearted act if you'd do it for us," said the little man in his high, boyish voice. It was a shock to discover that he spoke in a dialect. "There's a heap of sentiment connected with this affair. You see, outside of being a prize that we won at considerable risk, there goes with this phonograph a set of records, among which we all have our special favorites. Have you ever heard Madam-o-sella Melby sing The Holy City?"
"I didn't know she sang it," said Speed.
"Take it from me, she did, and you've missed a heap."
"You bet," Stover agreed, in a hushed, awed tone.
"Well, you must have heard Missus Heleney Moray in The Baggage Coach Ahead?" queried the scholarly little man. At mention of his beloved classic, Carara, the Mexican, murmured, softly:
"Ah! The Baggage Car—Te'adora Mora! God bless 'er!"
"I must confess I've never had the pleasure," said Speed, whereupon the speaker regarded him pityingly, and Stover, jealous that so much of the conversation had escaped him, inquired:
"Can it be that you never heard that monologue, Silas on Fifth Avenoo?"
Again Speed shook his head.
As if the very memory were hilariously funny, Still Bill's shoulders heaved, and stifled laughter caused his Adam's apple to race up and down his leathern throat. Swallowing his merriment at length, he recited, in a choking voice, as follows: "Silas goes up Fifth Avenoo and climbs into a bus. There is a girl settin' opposite. He says, 'The girl opened her valise, took out her purse, closed her valise, opened her purse, took out a dime, closed her purse, opened her valise, put in her purse, closed her valise, handed the dime to the conductor, got a nickle in change, opened her valise, took out her purse, closed her valise, opened her purse—'"
At this point the speaker fell into ungovernable hysteria and exploded, rocking back and forth, slapping his thighs and hiccoughing with enjoyment. Willie followed him, as did Carara. Even Cloudy showed his teeth, and the two young people on the porch found themselves joining in from infection. It was patent that here lay some subtle humor sufficient to convulse the Far Western nature beyond all reason; for Stover essayed repeatedly to check his laughter before gasping, finally: "Gosh 'lmighty! I never can get past that place. He! He! He! Whoo-hoo! That's sure ridic'lous, for fair." He wiped his eyes with the back of a sun- browned hand, and his frame was racked with barking coughs. "I know the whole blame thing by heart, but-I can't recite it to you. I bog down right there. Seems like some folks is the darndest fools!"
Speed allowed this good-humor to banish his trepidation, and assured the foreman that Silas on Fifth Avenue must indeed be a very fine monologue.
"It's my favorite," said Still Bill, "but we all have our picks. Cloudy here likes Navajo, which I agree is attuned to please the savage year, but to my mind it ain't in the runnin' with Silas."
"You see what the phonograph means to these gentlemen," said Miss Blake. "I think it's a crying shame that they were cheated out of it, don't you?"
Speed began to outline a plan hastily in his mind.
"I assured them that you would win it back for them, and—"
"We sure hope you will," said Willie, earnestly.
"Amen!" breathed the lanky foreman, his cheeks still wet from his tears of laughter, but his face drawn into lines of eagerness.
"Please! For my sake!" urged Helen, placing a gentle little hand upon her companion's arm.
Speed closed his eyes, so to speak, and leaped in the dark.
"All right, I'll do it!"
"Yow-ee!" yelled Stover. "We knew you would!" Willie was beaming benignantly through his glasses, while both Carara and Cloudy showed their heartfelt gratitude. "Thank you, Miss Blake. Now we'll show up that shave-tail Centipede crowd for what it is."
"Wait!" Speed checked the outburst. "I'll consent upon conditions. I'll run, provided you can arrange the race for an 'unknown.'"
"What does that mean?" Helen asked.
"It means that I don't want my name known in the matter. Instead of arranging for Mr. Whatever-the-Cook's-Name-Is to run a race with J. W. Speed, he must agree to compete against a representative of the Flying Heart ranch, name unknown."
"I don't think that is fair!" cried the girl. "Think of the honor."
"Yes, but I'm an amateur. I'd lose my standing."
"That goes for us," said Stover. "We don't care what name you run under. We'll frame the race. Lordy! but this is a glorious event."
"We can't thank you enough," Willie piped. "You're a true sport, Mr. Speed, and we aim to see that you don't get the worst of it in no way. This here race is goin' to be on the square-you hear me talk-in'. No double-cross this time." Unconsciously the speaker's hand strayed to the gun at his belt, while his smile was grim. Speed started.
"What day shall we set?" inquired Stover.
Wally rapidly calculated the date of Culver's arrival, and said: "A week from Saturday." Covington would soon be en route, and was due to arrive a few days thereafter.
"We'd like to make it to-morrow," ventured Willie.
"Oh, but I must have a chance to get in trim," said the college man.
"One week from Saturday goes," announced Stover, "and we thank you again." Turning to Carara, he directed: "Rope your buckskin, and hike for the Centipede. Tell 'em to unlimber their coin. I'll draw a month's wages in advance for every son-of-a-gun on the Flying Heart, and we'll arrange details to-night."
"Si," agreed Carara. "I go."
"And don't waste no time neither," directed Willie. "You tear like a jack-rabbit ahead of a hot wind."
Carara tossed his cigarette aside, and the sound of his spurs was lost around the corner of the house.
"This makes a boy of me," the last speaker continued. "I can hear the plaintiff notes of Madam-o-sella Melby once again."
Larry Glass discovered his protege on the rear porch engrossed with Miss Blake, and signalled him from afar; but the young man ignored the signal, and the trainer strolled up to the steps.
"Hello, Larry! What's on your mind?" inquired Speed.
"I'd like to see you." Glass, clad in his sportiest garments, seemed utterly lacking in the proper appreciation of a valet's position. He treated his employer with a tolerant good-nature.
Miss Blake excused herself and went into the house, whereupon her companion showed his irritation. "See here, Larry, don't you know better than to interrupt me in the midst of a hammock talk?"
"Oh, that's all right," wheezed the trainer. "As long as you didn't spill her out, she'll be back."
"Well, what is it?"
"I had a stomach-laugh slipped to me just now." He began to shake.
"So you broke up my tete-a-tete to tell me a funny story?"
"Listen here. These cowboys have got you touted for a foot- runner." This time Glass laughed aloud, hoarsely. "They have framed a race with a ginny down the block."
"All right, I'll run."
Mr. Glass's face abruptly fell into solemn lines. "Quit your kiddin', Wally; you couldn't run a hundred yards in twenty minutes. These guys are on the level. They've sent General Garcia over to cook it."
"Yes. The race comes off in ten days."
Glass allowed his mouth to drop open and his little eyes to peer forth in startled amazement.
"Then it's true? I guess this climate is too much for you," he said. "When did you feel this comin' on?"
Speed laughed. "I know what I'm doing." With an effort at restraint, the trainer inquired:
"What's the idea?"
"I'll tell you how it came up, Larry. I—I'm very fond of Miss Blake. That's why I broke the record getting out here as soon as I was invited. Well, she believes, from something I said—one of those odd moments, you know—that I'm a great athlete, and she told those cowboys that I'd gladly put on my spiked shoes and carry their colors to victory. You've heard about the phonograph?"
Glass smiled wearily. "I can't hear nothing else. The gang is daffy on grand opera."
"When I was accused of being an athlete I couldn't deny it, could I?"
"I see. You was stringin' the gal, and she called you, eh?"
"I wouldn't express it in quite those terms. I may have exaggerated my abilities slightly." Glass laughed. "She is such a great admirer of athletics, it was quite natural. Any man would have done the same. She got me committed in front of the cowboys, and I had to accept—or be a quitter."
Glass nodded appreciatively. "All the same," said he, "you've got more nerve than a burglar. How you goin' to side-step?"
"I made the match for an 'unknown.'" Speed winked. "Covington will be here in a day or two. I'll wire him to hurry up. Fortunately I brought a lot of athletic clothes with me, so I'll go into training under your direction. When Covington gets here I'll let him run."
The fat man sighed with relief. "Now I'm hep. I was afraid you'd try to go through with it."
"Hardly. I'll sprain an ankle, or something. She'll be there with the sympathy. See? Covington will run the race; the cowboys will get their phonograph; and I'll get—well, if I can beat out this Native Son tenor singer, I'll invite you to the wedding. There wasn't any other way out."
Glass mopped his brow. "You had me wingin' for a while, but I plugged your game with the cowboys. Pawnee Bill and his Congress of Rough Riders think you're a cyclone."
"It's the first chance I ever had to wear that silk running-suit. Who knows, maybe I can run!"
"Nix, now! Don't kid yourself too far. This thing is funny enough as it stands."
"Oh, I dare say it looks like a joke to you, but it doesn't to me, Larry. If I don't marry that girl, I—I'll go off my balance, that's all, and I'm not going to overlook any advantage whatever. Fresno sings love-songs, and he's got a mint of money. Well, I'm going to work this athletic pose to death. I'm going into training, I'm going to talk, eat, sleep, live athletics for a week, and when I'm unexpectedly crippled on the eve of the race, it is going to break my heart. Understand! I am going to be so desperately disappointed that I'll have to choose between suicide and marriage. The way I feel now, I think I'll choose marriage. But you must help."
"Leave it to me, Bo!"
"In the first place, I want some training-quarters."
"That's right, don't be a piker."
"And I want you to boost."
"I'm there! When do we begin?"
"Right away. Unpack my running-suit and rub some dirt on it—it's too new. I think I'll limber up, and let her get a look at the clothes."
"It's a bright idea; but don't let these animal-trainers see you run, or the stuff will be cold in a minute."
"Fine! We'll have secret practice! That suits me perfectly." Speed laughed with joy.
From inside the house came the strains of Dearie, sung in a sympathetic tenor, and upon the conclusion Berkeley Fresno's voice inquiring:
"Miss Blake, did I ever tell you about the time I sang Dearie to the mayor's daughter in Walla Walla?"
Miss Blake appeared on the gallery with her musical admirer at her elbow.
"Yes," said she, sweetly. "You told me all about the mayor's daughter a week ago." Then spying Speed and his companion, she exclaimed: "Mr. Fresno has a fine voice, hasn't he? He sings with the Stanford Glee Club."
"Sure!" The Native Son of the Golden West shook up a hammock- cushion for the girl. "Tenor!" said he, sententiously.
"Say no more," Speed remarked; "it's all right with us!"
Fresno looked up.
"What's wrong with my singing?"
"Oh, I've just told the girls that you're going to run that foot- race," Helen interposed, hurriedly, at which Fresno exploded.
"What's wrong with my running?" inquired Speed.
"I can beat you!"
Larry Glass nudged his employer openly, and seemed on the verge of hysteria. "Let him go," said he. "Let him go; he's funny."
Speed addressed Helen, with a magnanimous smile:
"Suppose we allow Frez to sing this foot-race? We'll pull it off in the treble cleff."
"Oh, I mean it!" maintained the tenor, stubbornly. "I don't want to run Skinner, the cook, but I'll run you to see who does meet him."
Speed shrugged his shoulders indulgently.
"I'm afraid you're a little overweight."
"I'll train down."
"Perhaps if you wait until I beat this cook, I'll take you on."
Glass broke out, in husky indignation: "Sure! Get a rep, Cull, get a rep!" Then to his employer: "Come on, Wally, you've got to warm up." He mounted the steps heavily with his protege.
When they had gone, Miss Blake clapped her hands.
"I'm so excited!" she exclaimed. "You see, it's all my doings! Oh, how I adore athletes!"
"Most young girls do," Fresno smiled, sourly. "My taste runs more to music." After a moment's meditation, he observed: "Speed doesn't look like a sprinter to me. I—I'll wager he can't do a hundred yards in fifteen-two."
"'Fifteen-two' is cribbage," said Miss Blake.
"Fifteen and two-fifths seconds is what I mean."
"Is that fast?"
Fresno smiled, indulgently this time. "Jean's friend Covington can go the distance in nine and four-fifths seconds. He's a real sprinter. I think this fellow is a joke."
"Indeed he is not! If Mr. Covington can run as fast as that, Mr. Speed can run faster. He told me so."
"Oh!" Fresno looked at her curiously. "The world's record is nine and three-fifths; that's the limit of human endurance."
"I hope he doesn't injure himself," breathed the girl, and the tenor wandered away, disgusted beyond measure. When he was out of hearing, he remarked, aloud:
"I'll bet he runs so slow we'll have to wind a stop-watch on him. Anyhow, I think I'll find out something more about this race."
Once in his room, Mr. J. Wallingford Speed made a search for writing materials, while Larry Glass overhauled a trunk filled with athletic clothing of various descriptions. There were running-suits, rowing-suits, baseball and football suits, sweaters, jerseys, and bath robes—all of which were new and unstained. At the bottom Glass discovered a box full of bronze and near-gold emblems.
"Here's your medals," said he.
"Good! I'll wear them."
"Nix! You can't do that. Those gals will get wise." He selected one, and read on the reverse side. "Clerk of the course"; another was engraved "Starter." All were official badges of some sort or other. "You always were strong on the 'Reception Committee' stuff. There's six of them," said he.
Speed pointed to the bureau. "Try a nail-file. See if you can't scratch off the lettering. How's this?" He read what he had written for the wire. "'Culver Covington, and so forth. Come quick. First train. Native Son making love to Jean.—Wally.' Ten words, and it tells the whole story. I can hardly explain why I want him, can I? He expects to stop off in Omaha for a day or two, but he'll be under way in an hour after he gets this. I hate to spoil his little visit, but he can take that in on his way home. Now I'll ring for somebody, and have this taken over to the station by the first wagon."
"Say, you better scratch this Fresno," said Larry.
"He's hep to you."
Glass looked up at a sound, to discover Mariedetta, the Mexican maid, who had come in answer to Speed's call.
"In the doorway'" the trainer said, under his breath. "Pipe the Cuban Queen!"
"You call?" inquired Mariedetta of the younger man.
"Yes, I want this telegram to go to the depot as soon as possible."
Mariedetta took the message and turned silently, but as she went she flashed a look at Glass which caused that short-waisted gentleman to wink at his companion.
"Some frill! Eh? I'm for her! She's strong for me, too."
"How do you know?"
"We talked it over. I gave her a little kiss to keep for me."
"Careful, Larry! She may have a cowboy sweetheart."
Glass grunted, disparagingly.
"Them ginnys is jokes to me."
As Speed talked he clad himself in his silken uniform, donned his spiked shoes, and pinned the medals upon his chest.
"How do I look?" he queried.
"Immense! If she likes athletes, it's a walk-away for you."
"Then give me the baby-blue bath robe with the monogram. We'll go out and trot around a little."
But his complacency received a shock as he stepped out upon the veranda. Not only Helen Blake awaited him, but the other girls as well, while out in front were a dozen or more cowboys whom Fresno had rallied. "Goin' to take a little run, eh?" inquired Stover. "We allowed we'd lay off a few minutes and watch you."
"Yes," Fresno spoke up. "I told the boys we'd better hold a stop- watch on you and see what shape you're in."
"A stop-watch?" said Glass, sharply.
"Yes. I have one."
"Not to-day," said Speed's trainer. "No!" he admonished, as his protege turned upon him. "Some other time, mebbe. You're just off a long trip, and I can't risk gettin' you stove up."
"To-morrow, perhaps," urged Fresno.
"I wouldn't promise."
"Then the next day. I've timed lots of men. The watch is correct."
"Let's see it." Glass held out his hand.
"Oh, it's a good watch. It cost me one hundred and twenty-five dollars."
As Glass reached for the timepiece an unfortunate accident occurred. Speed struck his elbow, and the watch fell. Fresno dove for it, then held it to his ear and shook it.
"You've broken it!" he cried, accusingly.
"Oh, I'm sorry! My fault," Speed apologized.
"If it was your fault, maybe you'll fix it," suggested the tenor.
"Gladly!" Speed turned to his trainer. "Buy a new alarm—clock for our little friend." He stripped off his bath robe, and handed it to his trainer. "Is she looking at me?" he whispered.
"Both eyes, big as saucers."
Speed settled his spikes into the dirt as he had seen other sprinters do, set himself for an instant, then loped easily around the house and out of sight.
To the cowboys this athletic panoply was vastly impressive. With huge satisfaction they noticed the sleeveless shirt, the loose running-trunks, and, above all, the generous display of medals. With a wild yell of delight they broke out upon the trail of their champion, only to have Glass thrust his corpulent body in their path. With an upflung arm he stemmed the tide.
"It's no use, boys," he cried, "he's a mile away!"
"This doesn't look much like our storehouse, does it?" Jean paused in her task, and, seating herself upon the summit of a step-ladder, scrutinized with satisfaction the transformation wrought by a myriad of college flags, sofa cushions, colored shawls, and bunting.
Roberta Keap dropped her hammer with an exclamation of pain.
"Ouch!" she cried, "I've hurt my thumb. I can't hit where I look when people are talking."
"Why don't you pin them up?" queried Miss Blake, sweetly. "A hammer is so dangerous."
Mrs. Keap mumbled something, but her enunciation was indistinct, owing to the fact that her thumb was in her mouth. Helen finished tying a bow of ribbon upon the leg of a stool, patted it into proper form, then said:
"It looks cheerful."
"And restful," added Jean.
"I think a gymnasium should be restful, above all things," agreed Helen. "Most of them are so bare and strenuous-looking they give one a headache." She spied a Whiteley exerciser fastened against the wall, the one bit of gymnastic apparatus in the room. 'Oh, the puller!' she cried. "I mustn't forget the puller!" She selected a pink satin ribbon, and tied a chic bow upon one of the wooden handles. "There! We can let him in now."
"Oh dear!" Jean descended from her precarious position and admitted, "I'm tired out."
All that morning the three had labored, busily transforming the store-room into training-quarters for Speed, who had declared that such things were not only customary but necessary. To be sure, it adjoined the bunk-room, where the cowboys slept, and there were no gymnastic appliances to give it character, but it was the only space available, and what it lacked in horizontal bars, dumb-bells, and Indian clubs it more than compensated for by a cosey-corner, a window-seat, and many cushions. Speed had expressed his delight with the idea, and agreed to wait for a glimpse of it.
And the atmosphere at the Flying Heart Ranch was clearing. The gloom of the cowboys had given way to a growing excitement, a part of which communicated itself to the occupants of the house. The lassitude of previous days was gone, the monotony had disappeared, and Miss Chapin had cause to rejoice at the presence of her latest guest, for Speed was like a tonic. He was everywhere, he inspired them all, laughter followed in his wake. Even in the bunk-house the cowboys retailed his extravagant stories with delight. The Flying Heart had come into its own at last; the Centipede, most scorned and hated of rivals, was due for lasting defeat. Even Cloudy, the Indian, relaxed and spoke at rare intervals, while Willie worked about the place gleefully, singing snatches of Sam Bass in a tuneless falsetto. Carara had come back from the Centipede with news that gladdened the hearts of his hearers: not only would that despicable outfit consent to run a foot-race, but they clamored for it. They did not dicker over details nor haggle about terms, but consented to put up the phonograph again, and all the money at their disposal as well. The cook was in training.
Of all the denizens of the Flying Heart but two failed to enter fully into the spirit of the thing. Berkeley Fresno looked on with a cynicism which he was too wise to display before Miss Blake. Seeing the lady of his dreams monopolized by a rival, however, inspired him to sundry activities, and he spent much of his time among the cowboys, whom he found profitable to the point of mystery.
Mrs. Keap, the youthful chaperon, seemed likewise mastered by some private trouble, and puzzled her companions vaguely. Helen reported that she did not sleep, and once Jean found her crying softly. She seemed, moreover, to be apprehensive, in a tremulous, reasonless ways but when with friendly sympathy they brought the subject up, she dismissed it. In spite of secret tears, she had lent willing hands to the decoration of the gymnasium, and now nursed her swollen thumb with surprising good nature.
"Shall we let them in?" she inquired. "We have done all we can."
"Yes; we have finished."
In a flutter of anticipation Jean and Helen put the final touches to their task, while Mrs. Keap stepped to the door and called Speed.
He came at once, followed by Larry Glass, who, upon grasping the scheme of decoration, smote his brow and balanced dizzily upon his heels. Speed was lost in admiration.
"Its wonderful!" ejaculated the young athlete. "Those college flags give it just the right touch. And see the cosey-corner!"
Glass regained his voice sufficiently to murmur, sarcastically, "Say, ain't this a swell-looking drum?"
"We've used every bit of bunting on the ranch," said Jean.
"See the Mexican shawls!" Mrs. Keap added.
"And look," cried Miss Blake, "I brought you my prayer-rug!" She displayed a small Persian rug, worn and faded, evidently a thing of great age, at which Speed uttered an exclamation. "I always carry it with me, and put it in front of my bed wherever I happen to be."
Berkeley Fresno, drawn by the irresistible magnetism of Miss Blake's presence, wandered in and ran his eyes over the room.
Speed took the rug and examined it curiously. "It's an old-timer, isn't it? Must be one of the first settlers."
"Yes. It's thousands and thousands of years old. Father picked it up somewhere in Asia."
"How does it work?" queried Glass, feeling of it gingerly.
"It's a very holy thing," Helen explained. "The Mohammedan stands on it facing the East and cries 'Allah!'"
"Alley!" repeated the trainer. "No. Allah!"
"'Allah' is the Mohammedan divinity," explained Speed.
"I've got you." Glass was greatly interested.
"Then he makes his prayer. It is such a sacred thing that when one's feet are on it no harm can come to one."
"Well, what d'you think of that?" murmured the trainer.
Fresno laughed pleasantly. "It's too bad it isn't long enough to run this footrace on."
"Do you believe in the charm?" inquired Speed of Helen.
"Of course I do," she answered.
He laughed sceptically, whereupon Larry Glass broke in with husky accents:
"Nix on the comedy! I bet it's a wizard!"
His employer gazed warmly at the owner of the priceless treasure, and, taking the rug tenderly, pressed his lips to it.
Fresno shook his head in disgust; the brazen methods of this person were unbearable.
"Why all the colors?" asked he. "You can sing best where there is a piano. I can train best under the shadow of college emblems. I am a temperamental athlete."
"You'll be a dead athlete if you don't beat this cook." The Californian was angry.
"Indeed!" exclaimed his rival, airily.
"That's what I remarked. Did they tell you what happened to Humpy Joe, your predecessor?"
"It must have been an accident, judging from his name." At which Miss Blake tittered. She was growing to enjoy these passages at arms; they thrilled her vaguely.
"The only accident connected with the affair was that Still Bill and Willie didn't have their guns."
Glass started nervously. "Did these rummies want to shoot him?" he inquired.
"Certainly," said Fresno. "He lost a foot-race."
In spite of his assurance, J. Wallingford Speed felt a tremor of anxiety, but he laughed it off, saying: "One would think a foot- race in this country was a pearl necklace."
"These cowboys ain't good losers, eh?" queried Glass.
"It's win or die out here."
During the ensuing pause Mrs. Keap took occasion to call Speed aside. "I have something to contribute to the training-quarters if you will help me bring it out," said she.
The young man bowed. "Most gladly."
"We'll be back in a little while," the chaperon announced to the others, and a moment later, when she and Speed had reached the veranda of the house, she paused.
"I—I want to speak to you," she began, hesitatingly. "It was just an excuse."
Wally looked at her with concern, for it was plain that she was deeply troubled.
"What is it?"
"I have been trying to get a word alone with you ever since I heard about this foot-race." The young man chilled with apprehension as Mrs. Keap turned her dark eyes upon him searchingly.
"Why do you want to run?"
"To win back the cowboys' treasure. My heart is touched," he declared, boldly. Mrs. Keap smiled.
"I believe the latter, but are you sure you can win?"
"I didn't know you were a sprinter."
Speed shrugged his shoulders.
"Have you had experience?"
"Oceans of it!"
Mrs. Keap mused for a moment. "Tell me," said she, finally, "at what intercollegiate game did you run last?"
"I didn't run last; I ran first." It was impossible to resent the boy's smile.
"Then at what game did you last run? I hope I'm not too curious?"
"Oh no, not at all!" Speed stammered.
"Or, if it is easier, at what college games did you first run?" Mrs. Keap was laughing openly now.
"Why the clear, ringing, rippling laughter?" asked the young man, to cover his confusion.
"Because I think it is very funny."
"Oh, you do!" Speed took refuge behind an attitude of unbending dignity, but the young widow would have none of it.
"I know all about you," said she. "You are a very wonderful person, of course; you are a delightful fellow at a house-party, and a most suitable individual generally, but you are not an athlete, in spite of those beautiful clothes in your trunk."
"Who told you?"
"I didn't know you two were acquainted."
Mrs. Keap flushed. "He told me all about you long ago. You wear all the athletic clothes, you know all the talk, you have tried to make the team a dozen times, but you are not even a substitute. You are merely the Varsity cheer-leader. Culver calls you 'the head-yeller.'"
"Columbus has discovered our continent!" said Speed. "You are a very wise chaperon, and you must have a corking memory for names, but even a head-yeller is better than a glee-club quarter-back." He nodded toward the bunk-house, whence they had come. "You haven't told anybody?"
"'Yet,'" he quoted. "The futurity implied in that word disturbs me. Suppose you and I keep it for a little secret? Secrets are very delightful at house-parties."
"Don't you consider your action deceitful?"
"Not at all. My motto is 'We strive to please.'"
"Think of Helen."
"That's it; I can't think of anything else! She's mad about athletics, and I had to do something to stand off this weight- lifting tenor."
"Is it any wonder a woman distrusts every man she meets?" mused the chaperon. "Helen might forgive you, I couldn't."
"Oh, it's not that bad. I know what I'm doing."
"You will cause these cowboys to lose a lot more money."
"Not at all. When Culver arrives—"
"Oh, that is what I want to talk over with you," Mrs. Keap broke in, nervously.
"Then it isn't about the foot-race? You are not angry?" Speed brightened amazingly.
"I'm not exactly angry; I'm surprised and grieved. Of course, I can't forgive deceit—I dare say I am more particular than most people."
"But you won't tell?" Mrs. Keap indicated in some subtle manner that she was not above making terms, whereupon her companion declared, warmly: "I'm yours for life! Ask me for my watch, my right eye, anything! I'll give it to you!"
"I assure you I sha'n't ask anything so important as that, but I shall ask a favor."
"Name it and it is yours!" Speed wrung the hand she offered.
"And perhaps I can do more than keep silent—although I don't see what good it will do. Perhaps I can help your suit."
"Gracious lady, all I ask is that you thrust out your foot and trip up Berkeley Fresno whenever he starts toward her. Put him out of the play, and I shall be the happiest man in the world."
"Now, in what way can I serve you?"
Mrs. Keap became embarrassed, while the same shadowy trouble that had been observed of late settled upon her.
"I simply hate to ask it," she said, "but I suppose I must. There seems to be no other way out of it." Turning to him suddenly, she said, in a low, intense voice: "I—I'm in trouble, Mr. Speed, such dreadful trouble!"
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" he answered her, with genuine solicitude. "You needn't have made any conditions. I would have done anything I could for you."
"That's very kind, for I don't like our air of conspiracy, but"— Mrs. Keap was wringing her slender hands—"I just can't tell the girls. You—you can help me."
Speed allowed her time to grow calm, when she continued:
"I—I am engaged to be married."
"Not at all," said the young widow, wretchedly. "That is the awful part of it. I am engaged to two men!" She turned her brown eyes full upon him; they were strained and tragic.
Speed felt himself impelled to laugh immoderately, but instead he observed, in a tone to relieve her anxiety:
"Nothing unusual in that; it has been done before. Even I have been prodigal with my affections. What can I do to relieve the congestion?"
"Please don't make light of it. It means so much to me. I—I'm in love with Jack Chapin."
"Yes. When I came here I thought I cared for somebody else. Why, I wanted to come here just because I knew that—that somebody else had been invited too, and we could be together."
"And he couldn't come—"
"Wait! And then, when I got here, I met Jack Chapin. That was less than a week ago, and yet in that short time I have learned that he is the only man I can ever love—the one man in all the world."
"And you can't accept because you have a previous engagement. I see! Jove! It's quite dramatic. But I don't see why you are so excited? If the other chap isn't coming—"
"But he is! That is what makes it so dreadful! If those two men should meet"—Mrs. Keap buried her face in her hands and shuddered—"there would be a tragedy, they are both so frightfully jealous." She began to tremble, and Speed laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder.
"I think you must be exciting yourself unduly," said he, "Jean's other friends didn't come. There's nobody due now but Culver Cov—"
"That's who it is!" Roberta raised her pallid face as the young man fell back.
"Culver! Great Scott! Why, he's engaged—"
"Nothing! I—I—" Speed paused, at an utter loss for words. "You see, he'll discover the truth."
"Does he know you are here?"
"No. I intended to surprise him. I was jealous. I couldn't bear to think of his being here with other girls—men are so deceitful! That's why I consented to act as chaperon to Helen. And now to think that I should have met my fate in Jack Chapin!"
"I see. You want me to break the news to Culver."
"No! no!" Mrs. Keap was aghast. "If he even suspected the truth he'd become a raging lion. Oh, I've been quite distracted ever since Jack left!"
"Well, what am I to do? You must have some part laid out for me?"
"I have. A desperate situation demands a desperate remedy. I've lost all conscience. That's why I agreed to protect you if you'd protect me."
"Culver is your friend."
"We're closer than a chord in G."
"Then you must wire him—"
"—not to come."
"What!" J. Wallingford Speed started as if a wasp had stung him.
"You must wire him at once not to come. I don't care what excuse you give, but stop him. Stop him!"
Speed reached for a pillar; he felt that the porch was spinning slowly beneath his feet.
"Oh, see here, now! I can't do that!"
"You promised!" cried Mrs. Keap, fiercely. "I have tried to think of something to tell him, but I'm too frightened."
"Yes, but—but I—want him here—for this foot-race." Wally swallowed bravely.
"Foot-race!" stormed the widow, indignantly. "Would you allow an insignificant thing like a foot-race to wreck a human life? Two human lives? Three?"
"Can't you—wire him?"
Mrs. Keap stamped her foot. "If he dreamed I was here he would hire a special train. No! It must come from you. You are his best friend."
"What can I say?" demanded the bewildered Speed, unhappily. "I don't care what you say, I don't care what you do—only do something, and do it quickly before he has time to leave Chicago." Then sensing the hesitation in her companion's face: "Or perhaps you prefer to have Helen know the deceit you have practiced upon her? And I fancy these cowboys would resent the joke, don't you? What do you think would happen if they discovered their champion to be merely a cheerleader with a trunkful of new clothes, who can't do a single out-door sport— not one!"
"Wait!" Speed mopped his brow with a red-and-blue silk handkerchief. "I'll do my best."
"Then I shall do my part." And Mrs. Keap, who could not bear deception, turned and went indoors while J. Wallingford Speed, a prey to sundry misgivings, stumbled down the steps, his head in a whirl.
Berkeley Fresno was devoting himself to Miss Blake.
"What do you think of our decorations?" she inquired.
"They are more or less athletic," he declared. "Was it Mr. Speed's idea?"
"Yes. He wanted training-quarters."
"It's a joke, isn't it?"
"I don't think so. Mr. Fresno, why do you dislike Mr. Speed?"
Fresno bent a warm glance upon the questioner. "Don't you know?"
Helen shook her head with bland innocence. "Then you do dislike him?"
"No, indeed! I like him—he makes me laugh." Helen bridled loyally. "Did you see those medals he wore yesterday?" the young man queried.
"Of course, and I thought them beautiful."
"How were they inscribed? He wouldn't let me examine them."
"Naturally. If I had trophies like that I would guard them too."
Fresno nodded, musingly. "I gave mine away."
"Oh, are you an athlete?"
"No, but I timed a foot-race once. They gave me a beautiful nearly-bronze emblem so that I could get into the infield."
"And did you win?"
"No! no! I didn't run! Don't you understand? I was an official." Fresno was vexed at the girl's lack of perception. "I'm not an athlete, Miss Blake. I'm just an ordinary sort of a chap." He led her to a seat, while Jean enlisted the aid of Larry Glass and completed the finishing touches to the decorations. "Athletics don't do a fellow any good after he leaves college. I'm going into business this fall. Have you ever been to California?" Miss Blake admitted that she had never been so far, and Fresno launched himself upon a glowing description of his native State; but before he could shape the conversation to a point where his hearer might perchance express a desire to see its wonders, Still Bill Stover thrust his head cautiously through the door to the bunk-house, and allowed an admiring eye to rove over the transformation.
"Looks like a bazaar!" he exclaimed. "What's the idea?"
"Trainin'-quarters," said Glass.
"Mr. Speed goin' to live here?" inquired the foreman, bringing the remainder of his lanky body into view.
"No, indeed," Jean corrected, "he will merely use this room to train in."
"How do you train in a room?" Stover asked her.
"Why, you—just train, I suppose." Miss Chapin turned to Glass. "How does a person train in a room?"
"Why, he—just trains, that's all. A guy can't train without trainin'-quarters, can he?"
"We thought it would make a nice gymnasium," offered Miss Blake.
"Looks like business." Stover's admiration was keen. "I rode over to Gallagher's place last night and laid our bets."
"How much have you wagered?" asked Fresno.
"More'n we can afford to lose."
"But you aren't going to lose," Miss Blake said, enthusiastically.
"I got Gallagher to play some records for me."
"Silas on Fifth Avenue?"
"Sure! And The Holy City, too! Willie stayed out by the barb-wire fence; he didn't dast to go in. When I come out I found him ready to cry. That desperado has sure got the heart of a woman. I reckon he'd commit a murder for that phonograph—he's so full of sentiment."
Fresno spoke sympathetically.
"It's a fortunate thing for you fellows that Speed came when he did. I'm anxious for him to beat this cook, and I hate to see him so careless with his training."
"Careless!" cried Helen.
"What's he done?" inquired Stover.
"Nothing, so far. That's the trouble. He's sure he can win, but" —Fresno shook his head, doubtfully—"there's such a thing as overconfidence. No matter how good a man may be, he should take care of himself."
"What's wrong with his trainin'?" demanded Glass.
"I think he ought to have more rest. It's too noisy around the house; he can't get enough sleep."
"Nor anybody else," agreed Glass, meaningly; "there's too much singin'."
"That's funny," said Stover. "Music soothes me, no matter how bad it is. Last night when we come back from the Centipede Mr. Fresno was singin' Dearie, but I dozed right off in the middle of it. An' it's the same way with cattle. They like it. It's part of a man's duty when he's night-ridin' a herd to pizen the atmosphere with melody."
"What I mean to say is this," Fresno hastened to explain. "We keep late hours at the house, whereas an athlete ought to retire early and arise with the sun. I thought it would be a good scheme to have Mr. Speed sleep out here until the race is over, where he won't be disturbed. Nine o'clock is bedtime for a man in training."
"Oh, I don't think that is at all necessary," said Miss Blake quickly.
"We can't afford to spoil his chances," argued the young man. "There is too much at stake. Am I right, Mr. Glass?"
Now, like most fat men, Lawrence Glass was fond of his rest, and since his arrival at the Flying Heart his sleeping-hours had been shortened considerably, so for once he agreed with the Californian. "No question about it," said he. "And I'll sleep here with him if you'll put a couple of cots in the place."
"But suppose Mr. Speed won't do it?" questioned Miss Blake.
"You ask him, and he won't refuse," said Jean.
"We don't want to see him defeated," urged Helen's other suitor; at which the girl rose, saying doubtfully:
"Of course I'll do my best, if you think it's really important."
"Thank you," said Stover gratefully, while Fresno congratulated himself upon an easy victory. "I'll ask him at once, but you must come along, Jean, and you too, Mr. Glass."
The two girls took Speed's trainer with them, and went forth in search of the young man.
"It's up to you fellows to see that he gets to bed early," said Fresno, when he and Stover were alone.
"Leave it to us. And as for gettin' up, we turn out at daylight. I don't reckon he could sleep none after that if he tried." Stover pointed to the striped elastic coils of the exerciser against the wall. "I didn't want to speak about it while they was here," said he, "but one of them young ladies lost her garters."
"That's not a pair of garters, that's a chest-weight."
"Jest wait for what?"
"Oh!" Stover examined the device curiously, "I thought a chest- developer came in a bottle."
Fresno explained the operation of the apparatus, at which the cow-man remarked, admiringly: "That young feller is all right, ain't he?"
"Sure! Don't you?"
Fresno explained his doubts by a crafty lift of his brows and a shrug. "I thought so—at first."
Stover wheeled upon him abruptly. "What's wrong?"
After a pause the foreman remarked, vaguely, "He's the intercollegit champeen of Yale."
"Oh no, hardly that, or I would have heard of him."
"Ain't he no champeen?"
"Champion of the running broad smile and the half-mile talk perhaps."
"Ain't he a foot-runner?"
"Perhaps. I've never seen him run, but I have my doubts."
"Good Lord!" moaned Stover, weakly.
"He may be the best printer in the country, mind you, but I'll lay a little bet that he can't run a hundred yards without sustenance."
"Sustenance—something to eat."
"Well, we've got plenty for him to eat," said the mystified foreman.
"You don't understand. However, time will tell."
"But we ain't got no time. We've made this race 'pay or play,' a week from Saturday, and the bets are down. We was afraid the Centipede would welsh when they seen who we had, so we framed it that-away. What's to be done?"
Again Fresno displayed an artistic restraint that was admirable. "It's none of my business," said he, with a careless shrug.
"I—I guess I'll tell Willie and the boys," vouchsafed Bill apprehensively.
"No! no! Don't breathe a word I've said to you. He may be a crackerjack, and I wouldn't do him an injustice for the world. All the same, I wish he hadn't broken my stop-watch."