G. W. GAGE
NEW YORK THE MACAULAY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY THE MACAULAY COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I THE COMING OF THE SHEEP 11
II A MEETING AND A PARTING 23
III JEALOUSY 35
IV THE GATHERING STORM 44
V TREACHERY 57
VI MURDER 73
VII THE OLD TRAIL 84
VIII HIGHER THAN STATUTE LAW 93
IX THE BATTLE AT THE RANCH 106
X THE SENATOR GETS BUSY 114
XI TANGLED THREADS 129
XII DESPERATE MEASURES 144
XIII INTO THE DEPTHS 156
XIV A DASTARD'S BLOW 171
XV THE FIRST CLEW 181
XVI TRAPPED 200
XVII A WAR OF WITS 212
XVIII A RESCUE, AND A VIGILANCE COMMITTEE 234
XIX BAFFLED, BUT STILL DANGEROUS 250
XX THE STORM BURSTS 262
XXI WITH BARE HANDS AT LAST 272
XXII CHURCH-GOING CLOTHES 283
THE COMING OF THE SHEEP
From his seat on the top of a high ridge, Gordon Wade looked into the bowl-shaped valley beneath him, with an expression of amazement on his sun-burned face. Pouring through a narrow opening in the environing hills, and immediately spreading fan-like over the grass of the valley, were sheep; hundreds, thousands of them. Even where he sat, a good quarter mile above them, the air was rank with the peculiar smell of the animals he detested, and their ceaseless "Ba-a-a, ba-a-a, ba-a-a," sounded like the roar of surf on a distant coast. Driven frantic by the appetizing smell of the sweet bunch-grass, the like of which they had not seen in months, the sheep poured through the gap like a torrent of dirty, yellow water; urged on from the rear and sides by barking dogs and shouting herders.
Straightening his six feet of bone and muscle, the cattleman stood up and stepped to the extreme edge of the rim-rock, with hardened countenance and gleaming eyes. A herder saw him standing there, in open silhouette against the sky line, and with many wild gesticulations pointed him out to his companions. With a quick motion, Wade half raised his rifle from the crook of his arm toward his shoulder, and then snorted grimly as the herders scrambled for shelter. "Coyotes!" he muttered, reflecting that constant association with the beasts that such men tended, seemed to make cowards of them all.
With an ominous shake of his head, he went back on the ridge to his waiting horse, eager to bear word of the invasion to Santry, his ranch foreman and closest friend. Thrusting the short-barreled rifle into its scabbard beneath the stirrup leather, he mounted and rode rapidly away.
Dusk was gathering as he pushed his way through the willows which fringed Piah Creek and came out into the clearing which held his ranch buildings. Nestling against the foot of a high bluff with the clear waters of the creek sparkling a scant fifty yards from the door, the log ranch house remained hidden until one was almost upon it. To the left, at the foot of a long slope, the corrals and out-buildings were situated, while beyond them a range of snow-capped mountains rose in majestic grandeur. Back of the house, at the top of the bluff, a broad tableland extended for miles; this, with Crawling Water Valley, comprising the fine range land, on which fattened three thousand head of cattle, carrying the Wade brand, the Double Arrow. Barely an hour before, the owner had surveyed the scene with more than satisfaction, exulting in the promise of prosperity it seemed to convey. Now all his business future was threatened by the coming of the sheep.
After putting his horse in the corral, the ranch owner turned toward the house. As he walked slowly up the hill, he made a fine figure of a man; tall, straight, and bronzed like an Indian. His countenance in repose was frank and cheerful, and he walked with the free, swinging stride of an out-door man in full enjoyment of bodily health and vigor. Entering the cabin by the open door, he passed through to the rear where a rattling of pots and pans and an appetizing smell of frying bacon told that supper was in progress.
Bill Santry was standing by the stove, turning the bacon in its sizzling grease, with a knack which told of much experience in camp cookery. The face which the lean and grizzled plainsman turned toward his friend was seamed by a thousand tiny wrinkles in the leathery skin, the result of years of exposure to all kinds of weather.
"Hello, Gordon!" he exclaimed. His pale blue eyes showed like pin points under the shaggy, gray brows. "You're back early, just in time for me to remark that if we don't get a pot-wrastler for this here outfit pretty durn quick, the boys'll be cookin' their own chuck. I'm blamed if I'll herd this stove much longer."
Wade smiled as he passed into the adjoining room to remove his spurs and chaps. "There's a Chinese coming up from town to-morrow," he said.
Santry peered across the stove to watch him as he moved about his room. The week before, a large picture of an extremely beautiful girl, which she had sent to Wade and which at first he had seemed to consider his most precious ornament, had fallen face downward on the table. Santry was curious to see how long it would be before Wade would set it up again, and he chuckled to himself when he saw that no move was made to do so. Wade had presented Santry to the girl some months before, when the two men were on a cattle-selling trip to Chicago, and the old plainsman had not cared for her, although he had recognized her beauty and knew that she was wealthy in her own right, and moreover was the only child of a famous United States Senator.
"There's thunder to pay over in the valley, Bill." Wade had produced "makings," and rolled himself a cigarette as he watched the foreman cooking. "Sheep—thousands of them—are coming in."
"What?" Santry straightened up with a jerk which nearly capsized the frying pan. "Sheep? On our range? You ain't kiddin' me?"
"Nope. Wish I was, but it's a fact. The sheep are feeding on the grass that we hoped to save against the winter. It's the Jensen outfit, I could make that out from where I stood."
"Hell!" Stamping angrily across the floor, Santry gazed out into the twilight. "That dirty, low-lived Swede? But we'll fix him, boy. I know his breed, the skunk! I'll...." The veins in the old plainsman's throat stood out and the pupils of his eyes contracted. "I'll run his blamed outfit out of the valley before noon termorrer. I'll make Jensen wish...."
"Steady, Bill!" Wade interposed, before the other could voice the threat. "Violence may come later on perhaps; but right now we must try to avoid a fight."
"But by the great horned toad...!"
Santry stretched out his powerful hands and slowly clenched his fingers. He was thinking of the pleasure it would give him to fasten them on Jensen.
"The thing puzzles me," Wade went on, flecking his cigarette through the window. "Jensen would never dare to come in here on his own initiative. He knows that we cowmen have controlled this valley for years, and he's no fighter. There's lots of good grass on the other side of the mountains, and he knows that as well as we do. Why does he take chances, then, on losing his stock, and maybe some of his herders by butting in here?"
"That's what I want to know," Santry immediately agreed, as though the thought were his own. "Answer me that! By the great horned toad! If I had my way...."
"This country isn't what it was ten years ago, Bill. We're supposed to have courts here now, you know." Santry sighed heavily. "To-morrow," Wade continued, "I'll ride over and have a talk with whoever's in charge of the outfit. Maybe I can learn something. You stay here and keep Kelly and the rest quiet if they get wind of what's going on and seem inclined to show fight. I've been, in a way, looking for trouble ever since we refused to let that fellow, Moran, get a foothold in the valley. If he's back of this, we've got a clever man to fight."
"There's another hombre I'd like awful well to get my hands on to," declared Santry belligerently. "Damned oily, greedy land shark! All right, all right! Needn't say nothin', Don. You're the brains of this here outfit, an' 'thout you say the word, I'll behave. But when the time comes and you want a fightin' man, just let me at him! When you want to run some of these here crooks outer the country, you whisper quiet like to old Bill Santry. Until then, I'll wait. That is—" He waved a warning finger at Wade.—"That is, up to a certain point! We don't want war, that is to say, to want it, you understand me! But by the great horned toad, I ain't a-goin' to let no lousy, empty headed, stinkin', sheepherdin' Swede wipe his feet on me. No, siree, not by no means!"
Wade made no reply to this, and with a further admonitory shake of his grizzled head, the old man resumed his cooking.
"You're sure that Chink'll be over in the mornin'?" he asked anxiously, after a little; and Wade nodded abstractedly. "Cookin' ain't no job for a white man in this weather. Breakin' rock in Hell would be plumb cool alongside of it." He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "Say, do you remember them biscuits you made over in the Painted Rock country? The batch I et ain't digisted yet.
"Every time I cook a meal," he went on, chuckling, "I think about the time Flour Sack Jim hired out to wrastle grub for that Englishman. Flour Sack was one of your real old timers, rough and ready, with a heart as big as a bucket, but he wouldn't bend his knee to no man livin'. The English jasper was all kinds of a swell, with money enough to burn a wet dog. For family reasons, he'd bought him a ranch and started to raise hosses. He wore one of these here two-peaked hats, with a bow on top, and he always had an eyeglass screwed into one eye.
"The first night after Flour Sack come on his job, he got up a mess of jack-rabbit stew, and stickin' his head out the door, yelled in real round-up style—'Come and git it!' Then he piled up his own plate and started in ter eat. In about ten minutes, in walks the English dude, and when he seen the cook eatin' away, he rares back and says, haughty-like—'Bless me soul, I cawn't eat with me servants, doncher know.' Flour Sack never bats an eye, but says, with his mouth full 'Take a cheer,' he says, 'an' wait until I git through.'"
Although Wade had heard the story before, he laughed pleasantly as Santry began to dish up the food; then the latter summoned the hired men.
"Mind, now, Bill," Wade admonished. "Not a word about the sheep."
The next morning, after a restless night, the young rancher set out alone for the sheep camp. He was more than ever concerned over the outlook, because sleep had brought to his pillow visions of cattle starving on a denuded range, and of Santry and Race Moran engaged in a death struggle. Particularly because of the danger of this, he had insisted upon Santry staying at home. The old plainsman, scarred veteran of many a frontier brawl, was too quick tempered and too proficient with his six-shooter to take back-talk from the despised sheep herders or to bandy words with a man he feared and hated. Wade was becoming convinced that Moran was responsible for the invasion of the range, although still at a loss for his reasons. The whole affair was marked with Moran's handiwork and the silent swiftness of his methods.
This Race Moran was a stranger who had come to Crawling Water some months before, and for reasons best known to himself, had been trying to ingratiate himself in the neighborhood, but, although he seemed to have plenty of funds, the ranch and stock men did not take kindly to his advances. He posed as the agent of some Eastern capitalists, and he had opened an office which for sumptuous appointments had never been equaled in that part of the country; but he had not been able to buy or lease land at the prices he offered and his business apparently had not prospered. Then sheep had begun to appear in great flocks in various parts of the surrounding country and some of these flocks to overflow into Crawling Water Valley. Moran denied, at first, that they had come at his instance, but later on, he tacitly admitted to the protesting cattlemen that he had a certain amount of interest in sheep raising.
More far-sighted than some of his neighbors, Wade had leased a large strip of land in the valley for use as winter range. Moran had seemed to want this land badly, and had offered a really fair price for it, but Wade had not cared to sell. Relying upon his privilege as lessee, Wade had not feared the approach of the sheep, and he had no reason to wish to dispose of his holdings. Now, it began to look as if the purpose was to "sheep" him out of his own territory, so that the agent might buy up the lease and homestead rights on practically his own terms. The thing had been done before in various parts of the cattle country.
Cattle and sheep cannot live on the same range, and when sheep take possession of a country, cattle must move out of it, or starve. No wonder, then, that the cattlemen of Crawling Water Valley were aroused. Their livelihood was slipping away from them, day by day, for unless prompt steps were taken the grass would be ruined by the woolly plague.
Thus far, Gordon Wade, a leader in the cattle faction, had been firm for peaceful measures though some of the ranchers had threatened an open war on the herders. "Avoid bloodshed at almost any cost," had been his advice, and he had done his best to restrain the more hot-headed members of his party, who were for shooting the sheep and driving out the herders at the rifle point. But there was a limit, even to Wade's patience, and his jaws squared grimly as he considered the probable result, should Moran and his followers, the sheep owners, persist in their present course of action.
It was still very early in the morning when Wade arrived at the herder's camp. Oscar Jensen, a short, thick-set man, with an unwholesome, heavy face, stepped out of the little tent as the rancher rode up.
"Good-morning!" The cattleman affected a cheerfulness which he did not feel. "Are these your sheep, Mr. Jensen?" He waved in the direction of the grazing band, a dirty white patch on the green of the valley.
"Perhaps you don't know that you are on Double Arrow land? I've ridden over to ask you to move your sheep. They're spoiling our grass."
Jensen grinned sardonically, for he had been expecting Wade's visit and was prepared for it.
"I got a right here," he said. "There's plenty good grass here and I take my sheep where they get fat. This is government land."
"It is government land," Wade quietly acknowledged, "but you have no right on it. I control this range, I've paid for it, and unless you move within the next twelve hours you'll be arrested for trespass."
The sheepman's sullen face darkened with anger.
"Who'll do it? The sheriff won't, and I'm not afeerd of you cattlemen. My sheep must eat as well as your cattle, and I got a good right here. I won't move."
"Then remember that I warned you if you get into trouble, Jensen. There's plenty of open range and good water on the other side of the hills. I advise you to trail your sheep there before it is too late. Don't think that Race Moran can save you from the law. Moran is not running this valley, and don't you forget it."
"How do you know Moran's backin' me?" The Swede could not conceal his surprise. "You can't bluff me, Wade. I know my rights, and I'm goin' to stick to 'em."
"The devil you say!" Now that he was sure of Moran's complicity in the matter, Wade felt himself becoming angry, in spite of his resolve to keep cool. "You'd best listen to reason and pull out while you're able to travel. There are men in this valley who won't waste time in talk when they know you're here."
"Bah!" Jensen snorted contemptuously. "I can take care of myself. I know what I'm doin', I tell you."
"You may, but you don't act like it," was Wade's parting remark, as he turned his horse and rode off.
"Go to hell!" the Swede shouted after him.
Heading toward Crawling Water, the ranch owner rode rapidly over the sun-baked ground, too full of rage to take notice of anything except his own helplessness. The sting of Jensen's impudence lay in Wade's realization that to enlist the aid of the sheriff against the sheep man would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible. There was very little law in that region, and what little there was seemed, somehow, to have been taken under the direction of Race Moran.
It was now broad day and the prairie warmed to the blazing sun. Long, rolling stretches of grass, topped with rocks and alkaline sand, gave back a blinding glare like the reflection of a summer sea, from which arose a haze of gray dust like ocean mists over distant reaches. Far to the South, a lone butte lifted its corrugated front in forbidding majesty.
Beyond the summit of the butte was a greenish-brown plateau of sagebrush and bunch-grass. Behind this mesa, a range of snow-topped mountains cut the horizon with their white peaks, and in their deep and gloomy canyons lurked great shadows of cool, rich green. As far as the eye could see, there was no sign of life save Wade and his mount.
The horse's feet kicked up a cloud of yellow dust that hung in the air like smoke from a battery of cannon. It enveloped the ranchman, who rode with the loose seat and straight back of his kind; it came to lie deeply on his shoulders and on his broad-brimmed Stetson hat, and in the wrinkles of the leather chaps that encased his legs. He looked steadily ahead, from under reddened eyelids, over the trackless plain that encompassed him. At a pace which would speedily cover the twenty odd miles to Crawling Water, he rode on his way to see Race Moran.
Two hours later Oscar Jensen was shot from behind as he was walking alone, a little distance from his camp. He fell dead and his assassin disappeared without being seen.
A MEETING AND A PARTING
Had some one of Gordon Wade's multitude of admirers in the East seen him as he stood looking out over his Wyoming ranch, he might have recognized the true cowboy composure with which the ranchman faced the coming storm, but he would not have recognized the stripling who had won scholastic and athletic honors at Princeton a few short years before, and who had spent a year after graduating in aimless travel and reckless adventure.
After flitting rapidly and at random almost all over the habitable globe, he had returned to his home in New York with some thought of settling down there, but the old family mansion was empty excepting for the servants, and his sense of loneliness and sorrow for the loved ones who were no longer there to greet him, drove him on speedily and he turned toward the West to explore his own country last of all, as so many other travelers do.
Attracted by the surpassing beauty of the country, he had lingered in Wyoming long enough to feel fascination of the ranch life that was then to be found in all its perfection in the wilder part of that State, and realizing that he had found the precise location and vocation that suited him, he had converted his modest fortune into cash, and invested all in the Double Arrow Ranch.
But on his way thither, he had stopped in Chicago, and there he had come face to face with Romance.
Before he had gone a dozen steps after getting off the train, some one dealt him a mighty blow between the shoulders, that well nigh sent him spinning. Before he could recover himself, he was caught from behind and hurled headlong into a taxicab.
"I've heard of Western hospitality before," he said, calmly, before he could see who his assailant was, "but you seem to be hard up for guests."
"No," said his college chum, George Stout, grinning happily as he clambered into the taxi, "but I wasn't taking chances; somebody else might have seen you first."
Followed three feverish days and nights; then as they sat in pajamas in Stout's apartment, Wade said: "I don't imagine there is anything more to see or do in this hectic city of yours, and I am free to say I don't like it; I think I'll move on."
"Not yet," said Stout, with the grin that endeared him to everybody that ever met him. "You've only seen the outside edges so far. To-night you are going to break into society."
"Do they have society here?" asked Wade.
"Well, they call it that," still grinning, "anyhow you'll be interested, not to say amused. The game is new as yet, but they go through the motions, and Oh, boy, how lavish they are! You'll see everything money can buy this evening, and probably meet people you wouldn't be likely to run across anywhere else.
"You're bidden to appear, sir, at the ornate mansion of a Senator of the United States—the Senator, perhaps, I should say, I've secured the invitation, and Mrs. Rexhill will never recognize me again if you don't go."
"Would that be serious?"
"Very serious. I am counsel for one of the Senator's companies."
"And does that imply social obligation?"
"It does with Mrs. Rexhill."
"Oh, very well, I'll go anywhere once, but who is Mrs. Rexhill? I suppose, of course, she is the Senator's wife, but who is she in society? I never heard of her."
"You wouldn't; it isn't what she is, it is what she wants to be. You must not laugh at her; she is doing the best she can. You'll admit one thing readily enough when you see her. She is probably the handsomest woman of her age in Chicago, and she isn't more than forty. Where the Senator found her, I can't say, but she was his wife when he made his first strike in Denver, and I will say to his credit that he has always been a devoted husband."
"I'm glad to hear something to his credit," said Wade dryly. "The general impression I've gathered from reading the newspapers lately, hasn't been of the most exalted sort."
"Oh, well," replied Stout, and his habitual grin faded away as he spoke. "A man in public life always makes enemies, and the Senator has plenty of them. It almost seems sometimes that he has more enemies than friends, and yet he has certainly been a very successful man, not only in politics, but in business. He has more irons in the fire than any one else I know, and somehow or other he seems to put everything through. I doubt if he could do so well if he was not at the same time a political power."
"Yes," said Wade, still more dryly. "I have heard the two facts mentioned together."
"Come, come," said Stout, more earnestly than he was in the habit of speaking, "you mustn't put too much faith in what the newspapers say. I know how they talk about him in the other party, but I happen to know him pretty well personally, and there is a good side to him as I suppose there is to everybody. Anyhow, he pays me well for my professional services, and I have seen nothing thus far that leads me to be disloyal to him."
It seemed to Wade's sensitive ear that his friend was speaking with a large mental reservation, but wisely reflecting that the matter did not concern him, he said no more, and when evening came, he went, willingly enough, to make the acquaintance of the man who was then counted as one of the greatest political powers in the country. Nor had he any premonition that in the near future he and his host of the evening would be engaged in a life and death struggle.
Of all that, however, there was no present indication whatever. On the contrary, the great man welcomed him with all the suavity of manner for which he was equally as famous as he was for the over-bearing rudeness he often displayed when his will was disputed. This latter trait had won for him the nickname of the Czar of American Politics; but he was an adroit politician, not lacking in courtesy to guests in his own house. Moreover, he was keen in his appraisal of men and quick to see that a man of Wade's type would be more valuable to him as an ally than as a foe.
Accordingly, he presented the young aristocrat to Mrs. Rexhill, who openly showed her delight in meeting one of such distinguished appearance, and with a great display of cordiality, she introduced him to her daughter Helen.
"It is her coming-out party, Mr. Wade," she said, gushingly, "and you must do all you can to make it a happy occasion."
One glance at the beautiful girl who stood before him was enough to determine Wade that her evening should be as happy as he could make it. The glaring ostentation of the house and its equipment had offended his fastidious taste when he entered, and the sight of the really handsome, but vulgarly overdressed and richly be-jeweled mother, had made him shudder inwardly, but when he looked into Helen's eyes, he forgot all his first impressions and imagined himself in Fairyland for the remainder of the evening.
An older head than his might easily have been turned and a wiser man bewildered by the tender glances of the charming girl who frankly met his advances half way, being as much impressed by his appearance as he with hers, and showing carelessness equal to his in regard to the comment they excited among the other guests. One thing that Helen Rexhill had never learned at school, or from the parents who had done all that could be done to spoil her, was to conceal her feelings. Just now she felt no inclination to do it, and she gave Wade dance after dance, with reckless disregard of her engagements and of the ill-concealed anger of some of the men she threw over with utter carelessness of social obligation.
Wade saw it clearly enough, but the preference she showed for him was so flattering as to make him indifferent, even had he considered himself responsible. He was therefore amused rather than exultant when man after man came up to claim a dance, only to be told "I just promised this one to Mr. Wade."
One such there was, who took his rebuff exceeding ill. Instead of retiring as the others had done, he stepped up closer to the girl and said rudely, "That's all very well, Helen, but you promised me first, and I hold you to it."
And he looked contemptuously at Wade who had started in surprise at his words, and had stiffened himself instinctively, as if to interfere, but who controlled himself instantly and kept silent despite his inclination.
A moment later he was glad he had done so. Helen's eyes flashed and she straightened her form proudly as she spoke.
"Did I really promise you, Race Moran? If I did, I have forgotten it, and anyhow, I am going to sit this dance out with Mr. Wade in the conservatory."
Race Moran, as she called him, was a handsome enough man, though rather flashy in appearance. But the evil look that came quickly on his face, no less than his huge and burly build, indicated that he would have been more at home in a barroom or a street fight, than where he was. For just a moment he seemed about to say more, but apparently thought better of it, and turning away with what sounded like a muttered oath, he walked toward the Senator, who stood at the other side of the room.
"I've made an enemy for you, Mr. Wade," said Helen, half laughingly and half seriously, as she led the way to the conservatory, closely followed by her eager escort.
"Well," said Wade lightly, "they say a man is poor, indeed, who hasn't a few enemies. I don't know that one more or less is of great importance, but it is well to know something about them. Who is the gentleman?"
"I hardly think you would call him a gentleman," said Helen, "though he thinks he's one; I wouldn't tolerate him a moment, only on my father's account. Dad calls him a political heeler, and says he is very useful."
"He ought to be that," said Wade, smiling; "I'd hardly call him ornamental."
"Indeed he isn't," said Helen, pouting prettily, "and he presumes too much on Dad's favor. He actually persecutes me with his attentions, but you know a politician's daughter has to put up with a good deal, sometimes."
"I don't think you need to suffer much," said Wade, gallantly. "You will always find admirers enough to stand between you and any trouble you may have. I rather think there is one of them coming this way at the moment. I shall certainly take pleasure in recognizing Mr. Moran as an enemy, but is this likely to be another one?"
"Oh, no," said Helen, laughingly, as an effeminate looking young man came up, evidently in search of her.
"I beg pardon, Miss Helen," he said, with a bow that seemed to include Wade, politely enough, in the apology, "But your mother asked me to find you. She wants you to meet some new guests who have just arrived."
"Oh, bother," said Helen carelessly. "She can look after them for a while. Tell her I'll be with her by-and-by," and she turned back to Wade, paying no further attention to the luckless messenger, who departed, hiding his chagrin as best he could, though not very successfully.
After he had gone, she said, "No, I don't think Maxwell Frayne is likely to be an enemy; at least, not one that you need fear. He is a gentleman, though he is too insipid to interest me."
"And you think Moran is a man to fear," asked Wade, trying to speak gravely, but showing amusement in spite of himself.
"I don't believe you fear the devil," said Helen, with open admiration, "but Race Moran can be very dangerous, and I feel sure he will try to injure you, if he ever finds a chance."
"Well in that case he will at least be interesting," said Wade, lightly. He would have been amazed if he had realized at the time how prophetic the girl's words were.
For the moment, however, he had little thought of peril and adventures to come. The time, the girl and the place, were all at hand, and he plunged headlong into a complication that kept him for weeks in Chicago, strongly inclined to stay permanently, yet reluctant to settle in a city so little to his liking, when the great out-doors was calling to him so urgently.
While the petals of the passion flower were unfolding so rapidly in the conservatory, Race Moran had taken the Senator to the latter's private room where they had had many secret conferences before. He had done the great man favors in New York where he was a valuable cog in the political machine, while the Senator was still a newcomer in the field, and with accurate judgment he had foreseen that Rexhill would be a winner.
Quick to see opportunities, he had cultivated the latter's acquaintance and courted his favor until he had become the Senator's most trusted adherent, and was admitted to the closest intimacy, so that he had become a constant visitor in the Rexhill home, and had definitely determined in his own mind, to become one of the family. He knew well enough that Helen disliked him, but his ideas of women had been gained from association with a class that is easily dominated, and he was confident of his own powers, which, in fact, were very considerable.
The Senator was not blind to the other's purpose, but though he was far from approving it, having other ideas concerning the daughter he idolized, he had not sought to discourage Moran, nor did he intend to. He would let him go on until a crisis should come, and in the meantime, Moran had not declared himself.
Helen's insolence at the door of the conservatory, however, had stung Moran, and as soon as he had the Senator in seclusion, he broke out.
"Who is that puppy Helen has on a string to-night?" he demanded roughly.
But the Senator could overlook rudeness when it suited his purpose to do so.
"I wouldn't call him a puppy exactly," he said, pleasantly enough; "he is a good deal younger than you and I, but he comes of pretty good stock in your town, Moran, and Stout tells me he has distinguished himself already in two or three ways. I reckon he'd be a pretty good friend to have, if he ever takes an interest in politics."
"Oh, I know the Wade family all right," said Moran impatiently; "they belong to the silk stockings, but we have our own way of dealing with that kind in New York, and I'm able to do the same thing anywhere else, if I have to. Maybe I will have to if he comes between me and Helen. Senator, I want to marry that girl myself. I ain't asking your consent, exactly, for me and her will be likely to do what we want to, anyhow, but I'd a heap rather have you favor the match."
That was almost too much, but the Senator knew his man and also knew how valuable he was. There was no sense in breaking with him until it was unavoidable, so he still spoke pleasantly, though he had flushed with anger for a moment.
"Yes, I reckon you and Helen will do as you like about it, especially as Helen likes. It was sort of decent of you to speak to me first, but there doesn't seem to be anything particular for me to say till you find out what Helen really thinks."
"Oh, I'll find that out, all right," said Moran, boastfully. "But this Wade person better look out; I might have him run into the river some night, if he pokes his nose in too far."
"I'd go easy on that, if I were you," said the Senator laughing heartily, "a dead Wade might interfere with your plans worse than a live one."
"Oh, of course," replied Moran, refusing to laugh. "I talk foolish with my mouth sometimes, when I'm mad, but all the same, he'd better look out."
"Now I wonder," said the Senator thoughtfully, after the other had left him, "how long it will be before he does find out, and how serious it will be. He's hit pretty hard, but I will have to keep him along some way or other; I can't afford to lose him."
And he sat musing over his cigar till one by one his guests had gone, but not until the great drawing room was well-nigh empty, did Helen leave the conservatory.
For a few weeks thereafter Chicago seemed, to Gordon Wade's fancy, to be the very center of the Universe. Gradually, however, the sturdy nature of the man asserted itself, and realizing that for him there were many more desirable places, he determined to look farther before choosing a permanent home. He told Helen frankly of his purpose, and to his great satisfaction she approved. There was no definite word of marriage between them, though they both looked forward to it and both, at the time of parting, deemed the understanding complete between them.
Helen would have had him turn to the East, for her heart was set on city life in one of the world's great capitals, but he declared he must see the West before deciding, and though she was dissatisfied, she was too wise to seek the domination she intended, at that stage of the game.
He departed, therefore, to find in Wyoming later on, his ideal of a home. His thought of Chicago thereafter, was that of the place where the girl he thought he loved was waiting for him, to claim her, so soon as his home was made suitable. There was much to do by way of preparation, however, and almost imperceptibly his ardor cooled as he found himself becoming prominent among the bold and independent citizens who were rapidly putting Wyoming on the map.
Meantime, many things of great interest to Gordon Wade happened without his knowledge.
A national election at which the previously dominant party was defeated, was a sad blow to Senator Rexhill, who not only suffered in prestige but in pocket. There was no question, even in the minds of his friends, that he frequently used his political influence to back up the many business enterprises in which he held an interest, and in which the greater part of his quickly-made fortune was invested. With the loss of his political pull, disaster came to one after another of those enterprises, and his successive losses were soon heavy enough to drive him almost to desperation.
His previous successes, however, had all been due to the audacity of his plans, for his boldness and courage were unquestionable. For a time he felt confident of winning again, and accordingly, maintained his lavish expenditures and luxurious style of living, with no word of caution to his wife and daughter, and he continued to seek for the long chances in business that offered the largest risks and the greatest gains.
All the redeeming qualities of his nature (and he had more than his enemies gave him credit for), were shown in his family life, and it was not surprising that Helen and her mother were both undisturbed by the gathering storm, but continued to live as he encouraged them to, having perfect confidence in his ability to overcome any and all the difficulties he might encounter.
Mrs. Rexhill continued to dream of social distinction. Failing to see that she had lost much of her own prestige by the Senator's political reverses, she continued to entertain so extravagantly in her palatial home, that she was still tolerated and she took infinite satisfaction in the position she thought she occupied.
She considered Chicago the greatest city in the world, and she dreamed of Helen as its queen. To her mind, the easiest way to accomplish that ambition was to persuade Helen to marry Maxwell Frayne. He had persistently courted the girl ever since he first met her, and he was heir to the great Frayne fortune.
The idea was not entirely revolting to Helen, though she had a small opinion of the elegant young trifler who pursued her so persistently, for she, too, had social aspirations, though being more clear-sighted than her mother, she dreamed of wider circles than those of Chicago. Her husband, whoever he was to be, should take her to Paris, or at least to New York.
Her infatuation for Gordon Wade, however, was as strong as ever. Perhaps she was right in thinking of it as true love, but she was greatly annoyed by Wade's choice of a ranchman's life, and by his settling down out of the world, as she considered he had done. Her letters to him, tender as they were, told him plainly enough of her dissatisfaction, and thereby undoubtedly contributed to the slow growth of his indifference.
For a time she failed to perceive this, and enjoying the excitement of the life she was leading, she was content to wait till Wade should tire of the wilderness, as she fully expected him to do, and should return to her. So she drifted, until after a time her suspicions were aroused by the tone of his letters, and she became anxious.
As time went on, Senator Rexhill's affairs became more and more involved. He realized that he stood little chance of reelection, when his term of office should expire, and meantime, his fortune dwindled rapidly, though he was still careful not to betray that fact at home.
Moran knew the situation perfectly well, but he remained outwardly loyal to his employer, partly because of the latter's liberality, but more, perhaps, because of the hope he still had of winning Helen eventually, despite the dislike she took no pains to hide.
Knowing how bold the Senator was in his speculations, he came to him one day with an exciting story.
"There's a guy in town," he said, "who may be just a plain nut, but he has the name of being a scientific sharp who knows his business from A to Izzard, and he's either got something almighty big, or he's got the willies.
"What he says is, that he's found gold in a new spot and oodles of it. According to what he tells, it beats California in '49. It's so big, he says, that he's scared stiff, thinking he can't grab enough of it, and he don't know, no more'n a baby, what to do with it. So he's looking for somebody to take hold of it in a big way and give him a whack."
"Where is this gold?" asked the Senator incredulously.
"That's the funny part of it," says Moran; "it's in Wyoming, and as near as I can make out, it must be close to where that young squirt is that Helen thinks she's stuck on. I'm not sure but what it's on his place, but even if it is, there is no reason why he should have any of it. The expense will be pretty heavy to do the thing up right, but if you're game, I reckon we can hog the whole business. We can stall this scientific nut off with promises, and probably buy off Wade for the price of pasture land, and then file claim on the whole dog-gone tract."
This vision of enormous wealth was captivating to the Senator, who had made his first start in mining and knew something of its possibilities. Bold as he was, however, he was also cautious, but after several conferences with Moran, he fell in with the scheme, first securing the services of a skilled metallurgist and an equally capable engineer, who were liberally paid and solemnly sworn to secrecy. He sent them out to verify the discoverer's story, and sent Moran to Crawling Water, to establish himself, and to do such preparatory work as should be necessary. In due time, Moran reported by letter that the gold was located, and was beyond question abundant. He was having trouble, however, in getting the property, as Wade refused to sell.
"Of course," he wrote, "we can file mining claims on the ground we know of, and get possession that way, but we want to make more surveys before doing that, so as to be sure of getting all there is, and we can't do that without giving the whole snap away, and filling the mountains full of prospectors. If that damn Wade won't sell, I'll find some means to drive him away."
It was just after the receipt of this letter, which filled the Senator with hope on the one hand, and anxiety on the other that he came on Helen one evening, as she was entering her own sitting room, and followed her in for a chat.
"What are you thinking of?" he asked, presently, when she failed to notice some trivial question he had asked, and seemed to be in a reverie.
She looked at him with laughing eyes.
"Gordon Wade, eh? Well, I wouldn't think of him too much. Better let that pass. You've outgrown it."
"Oh, no I haven't."
The Senator sighed.
"Mother said to me a little while ago, that he was probably going with other girls and forgetting me, and it made me angry."
"Well, I reckon your mother is about right. Gordon is a likely looking chap, you know. I've got nothing against him, except that he isn't good enough for you; no man is. You don't really care so much for him, do you?"
"Oh, don't I?" She viewed her father through half closed lids, in a quizzical way. "I care so very much for him that if I really thought there was another girl, I would go to Crawling Water to-morrow. You'd have to drop everything and take me."
Her father gently pinched her cheek.
"I would, eh? Well, maybe I'll have to go out there anyway. But do you realize what Crawling Water is like,—a rough, frontier town?"
"I wouldn't mind that for a while."
"No, I suppose not. You've got too much of your old dad in you to balk at a few difficulties. There's somebody else out there who'd be mighty glad to see your pretty face. Race Moran."
The sudden change in the girl's tone from tenderness to scorn caused the Senator a twinge of uneasiness. His plans were so closely linked with Moran's for the present, that the man might prove dangerous if his love for Helen were too openly scorned. That she could scarcely tolerate him, despite his ability and force of character, her father knew from the past; but even in the moment of his need he did not seek to influence her in Moran's favor. His love for her was genuine and very deep.
"He's been out there for some time, as my agent."
"Yes, I know that. He—he has written to me, although I've never answered his letters. I've been curious to hear from him again, because he promised to send me some kodaks of Crawling Water."
"Maybe he hasn't done so because you've ignored his letters."
Helen's lip curled in disdain.
"He'd never let a little thing like that stop him. But perhaps I will answer the next one, if only to find out what is going on out there. It's all so very mysterious. Do you know, father,"—She playfully shook her finger at him—"this is the first time in a long while that you haven't taken me into your confidence, and I think it a very ominous sign. I'm sure you'll be punished for it."
The Senator winced at the word punished, and Helen laughed at what she thought was the effect of her raillery.
"Why don't you tell me? You see, I'm so worried about Gordon. Honestly, father, I'm serious about that. I—I love him, and I don't want him hurt."
"Hurt? Why, who is thinking of hurting him?"
"Oh, I don't know. Moran hates him, and has referred to him once or twice in a way that I do not understand. Do tell me all about it."
"Oh, well, my dear, there's really nothing to tell. It's all concerned with some homestead lands out there that I want to get hold of for an investment. Wade will not be hurt, no; that is, he won't be if he beats me out. If I win, he'll lose."
"We both can't win, of course. It's to be a fight, yes,—an amicable business struggle, I hope. There's no reason for it to be otherwise." The Senator appeared strangely nervous, despite his effort at self-control. "Wade as a man and a Westerner doesn't expect to be fed on pap, you know, any more than I do. May the best man win, that's the way of it."
Helen thought this over for a moment.
"Perhaps I'd better go out there with you, after all," she remarked, half in jest.
Then the Senator thought that over for a moment and left the room.
Next day Helen received a package by mail which proved to contain a dozen clear photographs of Crawling Water and its neighborhood.
First of all, as though Moran thought it most important, was a snapshot of himself, which had been taken, so he wrote on the back of the print, by an obliging cowboy. The girl's face was a study in amused scorn as she looked at the photograph, for which Moran has posed with a cigar in his mouth, his hands in his pockets.
Then there were a number of views of the town itself; of its main street, its hotel, its dance-hall, and of "some of the boys" in various poses of photographic self-consciousness. There were also pictures of the marvelously beautiful countryside, but as she neared the end of them, Helen was disappointed to find none of Wade. "Of course, he wouldn't send me one of him," she said petulantly to herself, and she was rapidly running through the remaining prints only to pause suddenly at the very last, while a rosy tide flooded her face and neck.
The little photograph showed a tall, handsome, vigorous looking man, in the garb of a cattleman, half turned in his saddle, with one hand resting on his pony's flank. The man was Wade. With his other hand, he was pointing ahead, apparently for the benefit of a girl—a very good looking girl whose fine head was thrown back, as the wind blew her hair into pretty disorder.
Helen Rexhill had not hitherto experienced real jealousy, but this little photograph excited it. In the highly actinic light of Crawling Water at noon the camera had done its work well, and the figures of the two stood out from the distant background with stereoscopic clearness. Wade was smiling at the girl, who seemed to be laughing back at him, although her face in the picture was partially turned away, so that Helen got only an impression of charm. But the impression was enough to rouse her jealousy.
On the back of the print, Moran had written:
"A surprise picture of Gordon Wade and our new fellow-townswoman, Miss Dorothy Purnell, whose beauty and general attractiveness have made her the idol of Crawling Water."
THE GATHERING STORM
On the north bank of the river, from which it derived its name, the town of Crawling Water lay sprawled out in the shape of an irregular horn. Its original settlers had been men of large ideas, and having had plenty of space at their disposal, they had used it lavishly. The streets, bordered by dusty, weather-beaten, frame buildings, were as wide as those of a large city; indeed, in area, the town could compete with many a metropolis; but there the resemblance ended. Crawling Water was not fated to become a big city. The fact that the nearest railroad point was at Sheridan, forty miles away, did away with any ambitions that Crawling Water might have had to be more than a neighborhood center.
The mixed population was composed of cattlemen, sheep men, cow punchers and herders, with a sprinkling of gamblers and other riff-raff. Rough, uncouth, full-blooded men, they were, for the most part; hard working; decisive in their likes and dislikes; fearing neither God nor man, they met Life as they found it and faced Death with a laugh. They were the last of a fast disappearing type, picturesque, but lacking in many of the attributes which differentiate mankind from the beasts.
Hardly more than a village, Crawling Water was yet a town, and the seat of such machinery of government as had been established, and accordingly, Gordon Wade had ridden directly thither after his far from satisfactory interview with Oscar Jensen. After he had stabled his horse and seen it fed, he started up the street in the direction of Moran's office. He was resolved to find out where the agent stood on the sheep question without any unnecessary delay. Save for a few dogs, sleeping in the blaze of the noon-day sun, which hung overhead like a ball of fire, the town seemed deserted.
When Wade entered the office, Moran was seated at his desk, chewing on a cigar, above which his closely cropped reddish mustache bristled. Like Senator Rexhill, he was a man of girth and bulk, but his ape-like body was endowed with a strength which not even his gross life had been able to wreck, and he was always muscularly fit. Except for the miner's hip boots, which he wore, he was rather handsomely dressed, and would have been called tastefully so in the betting ring of a metropolitan race-track, where his diamond scarf-pin and ring would have been admired.
"Hello!" he boomed as Wade entered. "Have a cigar." He pushed a box of an excellent brand toward his visitor and waved him to a chair. His greeting was noisy rather than cordial.
Wade declined both the chair and the cigar.
"I dropped in to find out why you told Jensen to run his sheep in on my range," he began bluntly.
"Let me see—" The agent very deliberately lifted a large, white hand and took the cigar out of his mouth. "Just what range is that?"
"The upper valley range which I have under lease."
"Which you have under lease?" Moran affected sarcastic surprise. "I wasn't aware that you had any legal right to that part of the valley. It's government land, ain't it?"
"You seem to have forgotten that you once tried to buy the lease from me." The rancher bared his teeth in a grim smile. "We'll not quibble over that, however. We've got our legal rights, all of us; but we're a long distance from the courts here. What I want to know in plain English is, will you order Jensen to trail those sheep? Now, wait a moment!"
Moran subsided with a show of tolerance he did not feel.
"Think well before you answer," Wade went on. "I'm not here to threaten you, but there are desperate men in this valley who will take matters into their own hands, if this business is not stopped. There's plenty of grass on the other side of the mountains and your sheep are welcome to it. Why don't you make use of it?"
"Why should I? The sheep have a right to be where they are and there they'll stay until I get ready to move 'em. You cattlemen think you own this country, but when it comes to the show down, you're a bunch of bluffers. Now, Wade, I made you an offer once,—I'll admit it, and I'll make it again for the last time. Sell me your homestead and lease rights at the price I offered you—ten thousand dollars, and get out smiling. There isn't room for the two of us in the valley."
"Ten thousand for the homestead and the lease combined!" Wade laughed mirthlessly. "You're crazy, man. Why, you offered me that much for the lease alone a few weeks ago."
"Did I? I'd forgotten it. Anyway, it's a fair offer. The land is still owned by Uncle Sam, you know. You haven't proved up on your claims, and you never will if I can help it. We are spending lots of money here, and the government will see that our interests are protected. You cattlemen can't hog the whole of Crawling Water Valley. Times have changed. Well, what do you say?"
The ranchman dismissed the proposition with a gesture, but did not immediately speak. Silently, the two big men faced each other, their glances crossing like rapiers: the cattleman like a statue in bronze in the fixed rigidity of his attitude, but with an expression that showed him one dangerous to trifle with; the agent affecting that half tolerant amusement which one may feel toward an enemy unworthy of one's prowess. Wade presently broke the silence.
"Moran, you may be a big man in the East, but you're not big enough for the job you've tackled here. I've held my friends back as long as I can—longer than I thought I could—and when they break loose, this valley will be a little hell, perhaps a shambles. Men are going to be killed, and I have a feeling that you are going to be one of them. Against that time, once more, I warn you. Tell Jensen to trail his sheep!"
Swinging on his heel, the ranchman left the office, paying no attention to the ironical "Good night," which Moran called after him.
In the street, Wade chanced upon a neighboring cattle owner, Lem Trowbridge of the Circle Heart outfit, who fell into step with him.
"Gordon, how long are we going to stand for this thing, eh? Say, do you know what some are saying about you? Now, I'm your friend, and I'm telling you straight that you've gone far enough with this pacifist stuff."
"They say I'm afraid, I suppose?" Wade stopped and faced Trowbridge. "Have they said that to you?"
"To me? Say, what the —— kind of a friend do you take me for?" Trowbridge flamed up like a match. "No, they haven't said just that, Gordon; but they're hinting, and I don't like it."
"Well, if you hear it direct, send the man on to me with it," said Wade, his lips compressing ominously. "I'm about through, Lem, not quite, but pretty nearly. I've told Moran to have Jensen trail those sheep, and if he doesn't...."
Trowbridge nodded and smiled, as they paused at a street corner—one of the few that Crawling Water possessed.
"That's the idea, Gordon. We'll all be the readier for the waiting. Well, I'll not go any farther with you." He winked with elaborate precision and looked in the direction of a snug little cottage, with flower boxes in the windows, a biscuit toss away. "She's home. I saw her leave the store yonder a little while ago."
Wade blushed like a boy and looked foolish.
"I don't get into town so very often," he began lamely, when Trowbridge slapped him heartily on the back.
"You don't need to make any excuses to me, old man," he said, moving off. "That little woman has put Crawling Water on edge with admiration. You're not the only one—or, maybe, you are."
Secretly eager though Wade was to reach the cottage, the nearer he approached it, the slower he walked, fuming at himself for his sudden spinelessness. Although no ladies' man, he had never been woman wary until lately, and this of itself was a sign, the significance of which he was far from realizing. When he was with Dorothy Purnell, he almost forgot her sex in the easy companionability of their relationship; when away from her, he thought no more of her than he might of some man friend; but the approach had become a matter of embarrassing difficulty with him. There had even been occasions when he had walked past the cottage and ridden home without seeing her, trying speciously to convince himself that such had all along been his intention.
Something of the sort might have happened now had she not hailed him from the open doorway.
"Whither bound, stranger?" she smilingly demanded, in her low, rich contralto. "Better come in where it's cool. Mother'll be glad to see you, and I—shan't mind."
She had come to Crawling Water for the restorative effect of the bracing mountain air upon the health of her mother, who was threatened with nervous invalidism, following the death of Mr. Purnell, two years before. The town called them Easterners because their home was as far East as Michigan, but they had never been city dwellers, as Dorothy's fresh complexion and lithe, alert figure bore witness.
Her chestnut hair, piled in a silken crown on her shapely head, shaded a face that made those who saw it for the first time, catch their breath in instant admiration. Her radiance was of a glorious, compelling, and wholly distinct type, as refreshing as some view of green mountains from out a gloomy canyon. She had eyes, blue in repose, but shading to violet tints when aglow with vivacity; her nose was not perfect, because a trifle tip-tilted, but her face gained character through the defect; her very red lips held most delicious allurement in their slightly full curves. Her hands and feet were small enough to pay tribute to her birth and breeding, but not so small as to be doll-like. She wore a simple, white dress, freshly laundered, which made her look cool and inviting.
"You won't mind? Now that's good of you, and no mistake." Wade shook hands with her, slowly relinquishing her cool palm. "How is Mrs. Purnell? Better?"
"Oh, yes, I think so. You're better, aren't you, mother?" she asked, as they entered the cozy little living-room, where the temperature was in pleasant contrast to the outer heat. "The air up here does you good, doesn't it?"
Mrs. Purnell, a dispirited little person, admitted that she felt very well indeed, and seemed cheered at the sight of Wade, who greeted her deferentially but with easy geniality. She liked him for his wholesomeness, and she frequently declared that he was worth all the doctors in the country because of the impression of health and optimism which he bore with him. But she was aware that Dorothy liked him, too, and so presently made an excuse to leave the two young people together.
"Now, you may tell me all about what's worrying you," the girl said, seating herself across from Wade. "Something is. You can't keep the signs from me."
"Good girl!" His voice held a suggestion of tenderness, as he rolled and lighted a cigarette, in the home-like privilege which they allowed him there. "That's your way, always. No matter who's in trouble, you are ready to hasten to the rescue."
"Oh—," she deprecatingly began, with a trace of violet showing in her eyes, which meant a great deal more than words.
"No wonder every man in the valley considers himself your own, especial knight."
"I thought perhaps I could help you," she said briskly, to cover her sentimental moment. "But that was foolish of me, too, wasn't it? The idea of any one helping you."
"I'm likely to need all my friends soon, Dorothy," Wade answered soberly. "I came in to-day to see Race Moran. There's a big band of sheep on our upper range, and Jensen, who has charge of them, admitted to me this morning that Moran is behind him."
"Goodness, more sheep! Wherever do they come from?"
"I don't know where they come from, but they can't stay where they are unless I go out of business, that's certain." In a few words, he explained to her the significance of the movement, and told her of his talk with Moran. "I've no use for the man," he concluded, "and if it comes to a showdown between us, he need expect no sympathy. I've held back as long as I can. I understand better than he does what the crack of the first rifle will lead to."
"You have not liked him since you found that he took that snapshot of me," she said whimsically. "I didn't mind, but I can't imagine what he wanted it for."
Wade's face darkened.
"It was a confounded impertinence, whatever he wanted with it. But my dislike of him goes farther back than that."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, resting her chin in her hand, and looking him straight in the eyes, as she always did to those with whom she talked.
"It largely depends on him. Santry—you know how hot-headed he is—would run the herders away by force and kill off the sheep. As a last resort, of course, we may have to do something like that, but I want to win this fight without open violence if we can. A faction war, in the end, would be likely to ruin us all."
"You must be careful," the girl declared earnestly. "Moran is not going to be an easy man to handle. He seems to have plenty of money, and they say here in town that he stands in with the government; that he has some sort of 'pull.' He's clever, I think. He'll trick you if he can."
"I'm sure of that, Dorothy, but we're not going to let him. If only...! Say, do you know something else that is being said in this town? Something that they're saying about me?"
"Something nice?" her tone was archly inquiring.
He leaned forward and lightly rested his hand on her knee, just as he might have done with a man friend, and she took as little notice of it. His fingers were trembling a little under the stress of the emotion he felt.
"They're saying, those who don't like me, I guess, that I'm afraid of Moran and his crowd; afraid of a lot of sheep herders. No, of course, my friends don't believe it," he hastened to add when she started to interrupt. "But it's not doing me any good, especially now that public feeling is running so high."
"But you mustn't mind what they say, Gordon. That's part of the courage your friends know that you have; to do what you feel to be right, no matter what is said."
Her cheeks were glowing with indignation, and he appreciatively patted her hand before sitting erect in his chair again. It was no wonder, he reflected, in that almost womanless land, that many a cowpuncher rode the range by night, seeing her image in every star. The thought that each single man, and many a married one, in Crawling Water, would ride into the Pit itself to win one of her smiles, had been Wade's comfort, even when he was thinking of the possibility of bloodshed between the two hostile factions. But now, in the moment of her sympathy for him, he felt that he could not be content without some further assurance of her safety.
"What you say sounds well, Dorothy, but my pride's working on me, too, now. I can't help it. If my friends, who have been good enough to accept my leadership so far, should lose their heads and go to it without me, I might talk afterward until Kingdom come. I'd never convince anybody that I hadn't funked the thing. You spoke a few minutes ago of helping me. You can help me a great deal."
Her lovely face instantly blazed with eagerness.
"Can I? How?"
"By promising me that, if it comes to a fight, you and your mother will come out to my ranch. You'd be safer there. That is, of course, unless you'd prefer to leave Crawling Water altogether."
"Indeed, I shouldn't prefer to leave Crawling Water at this stage of the game, and"—she smiled reassuringly—"I'm sure we should be safe enough right here whatever happened. But, if you'd feel better about it, we would go to the ranch."
"Thanks. I feel better about it already, more free to show my hand. You are safe enough here now, of course, and might be clear through to the finish; but cheap whiskey has led many a fairly good man astray."
"If only there were some peaceable way out of it all." Her eyes became anxious as she thought of what he might have to face. "Can't you telegraph to Washington, or something?"
"Washington doesn't know whether Crawling Water is in the United States or in Timbuctoo," Wade laughed. "If we had some one in authority right here on the ground we might make him understand, but Mahomet will never come to these mountains, and they can't go to Mahomet. Why, what's the matter?"
His question was prompted by the sudden elation with which she had clapped her hands and sprung to her feet.
"How stupid of me, Gordon, to have forgotten." She stood over him with shining eyes and eager countenance, as lovely as a Lorelei. "There is an official of the United States Government here at this very moment."
"Here? In Crawling Water?" he exclaimed in amazement. "Who is he?"
"Senator Rexhill, Gordon." Wade stared almost vacuously at her as she ran on with her news. "He came in with his daughter last night on the Sheridan stage. Isn't that glorious? You must go up to see him at once."
"I will, of course," Wade said slowly, trying to catch his mental balance. "And with pleasure, too. It's been a long time since I last saw either of them."
"You know them—him?" Dorothy hesitated a little over which pronoun to use, with the somewhat disturbing reflection that Helen Rexhill was a most beautiful and distinguished looking girl. "That will make it all the easier," she added generously.
"Of course, Senator Rexhill has no authority of his own in such a matter, you know; but if we can get him interested, he may wake up Washington in our behalf. Only, I don't see what can have brought him to Crawling Water."
"Do you—do you know the daughter well?" Dorothy asked, with feminine cogency. "I suppose you met her back East?"
"We've known each other for a number of years." He arose, his face expressive of the delight he felt at the Rexhills' presence in town. "We used to be good friends. You'll like her. But it's strange they didn't tell me of their coming. You'll pardon me if I hurry over to the hotel, won't you, Dorothy?"
She gently urged him out of the house.
"Of course! Don't waste a moment, and let me know just as soon as you can what the outcome is. I do hope the Senator can settle all this trouble."
"I want you to meet them right away," he called, over his shoulder, and when he looked back for his answer, she nodded brightly.
But as she turned back into the cottage after watching him swing up the street she was not at all sure that she would like Helen Rexhill.
Overjoyed at the prospect of a peaceful solution of the problem which confronted him, Wade walked rapidly toward the hotel, happy, too, in the thought of meeting Helen Rexhill.
Whether he loved her with the single-hearted devotion which a man should feel toward his future wife, he was not sure; but he was confident that he did not love any one else. The idea of love in connection with Dorothy had never occurred to him; she was his good friend, nothing more. To Helen, belonged the romance of his life, fostered in other years by the distinct preference she had shown for him. At one time, they had been reported engaged, and although the word had never actually passed between them, many things more significant than speech had contributed to the warm regard which they felt for each other. Beneath Helen's reputed coldness of heart lay intense feeling, and on numerous occasions she had verged on unwomanliness in baring her moods to Wade, in a way that many other men would have been quicker to fathom, and perhaps to take advantage of, than he had been.
Now, the knowledge that she was close at hand, and that he might see her at any moment, caused his heart to beat rapidly. If to others she had been cool, to him she had been ardent, and this warmth had been the one thing needful to make her physically captivating. Only when some vital cause impends is a young man likely to distinguish between the impulses of his body and the cravings of his soul, and no such vital exigency had as yet appeared in Wade's life. He wondered if she was as beautiful as ever, and began to reproach himself for lack of ardor in his recent letters to her, lest he should now be repaid in kind. He wanted to be received upon the old, delicious footing, with her in his arms, and her lips trembling beneath his.
There were dozens of men in Washington and New York who would almost have bartered their souls for such privilege, and Gordon Wade need not be decried for his moment of passionate yearning. He was enough of a man to put the thought aside, pending his interview with the Senator, which was his first purpose. He felt sure that if Senator Rexhill could be moved to interest in Crawling Water affairs, his influence would be potent enough to secure redress for the cattlemen, and Wade meant to pull every string that could bear upon so happy a result. He was glad that Mrs. Rexhill had not made the journey, for he was conscious of her hostility to him, and he felt that his chances of moving her husband were better without her.
When he inquired at the hotel, he was told that the Rexhills were in, and he presently found himself shaking hands with the Senator, who greeted him with effusive warmth.
"Helen is changing her gown and will be in shortly," the big man explained. "I'm mighty glad to see you, Gordon. Only this morning we were talking of looking you up. How are you? Sit down, my boy, sit down!"
"Senator," Wade began, after they had exchanged commonplaces for a few moments. "Glad as I am to see you, on my own account, I am more than glad in behalf of my friends, who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting you. Your arrival in Crawling Water could not possibly have been more opportune. You have come just in time to save us, most likely, from an internecine strife which might have ruined us all. I was more glad than I can tell you to learn that you were here."
"Indeed, Gordon? I—I am much interested. Perhaps, you will...."
While Wade succinctly sketched the situation, the Senator nervously toyed with his eyeglasses, now and then lifting his double chin from the confinement of his collar, only to let the mass of flesh settle again into inertness. He thought rapidly. Evidently, Moran had not divulged the fact that he, the Senator, was concerned in the Crawling Water enterprise. Certainly, Moran had done very well in that, and Rexhill almost wished now that he had been less precipitate in coming to Crawling Water. If he had stayed in the East, his complicity in the affair might possibly have been concealed to the very end. He hastily considered the advisability of remaining under cover; but now that he was on the ground he decided that he had better be open and above board, in so far at least as he could be so. It would prove awkward in the event of subsequent investigation, if he should be made to appear in the guise of a deliberate conspirator.
So, presently, as Wade neared the end of his resume of the situation, Rexhill permitted an oleaginous smile to overspread his countenance. At the last, he even chuckled.
"It's really a bit amusing. No, no, not what you have said, my boy; but what I am about to say to you. You invoke my influence to stop these—er—depredations, as you call them, and up to a certain point, you shall have my aid, because I seem to see that matters have gone a bit beyond bounds. But when you ask me to go to extremes myself, why, I'm bound to tell you that I, too, have interests at stake. Why do you suppose I came to Crawling Water?"
"I'll admit that puzzled me."
Rexhill looked keenly at Wade, wondering if he were foolish enough to believe the trip a sentimental journey, purely. He concluded that the young ranchman had too much sense to jump at such a conclusion.
"Well, the reason is...." The Senator leaned ponderously forward, twiddling his glasses upon his thumb. "The reason is that I, if you please, am the moving spirit behind the company which Race Moran is representing here. You see...." He chuckled plethorically again at Wade's start of surprise. "It really is a bit amusing."
"Then Moran is your agent?"
"In a sense, yes."
"Well, I'll be damned!" The cattleman's tone was rich in disgust, but even more keen was his intense disappointment at this failure of his hopes. "Would you mind telling me, Senator, just what the purpose of your company is?"
"Certainly not. It's no secret," Rexhill replied briskly. "Certain parties back East, myself included, as I've told you, have reason to believe that a railroad will be put through this valley in the near future. This is an extremely rich and productive section, with natural resources which will make it heard from some day, so we are anxious to obtain a portion of the valley for speculative purposes. If the railroad comes through we'll probably build a town somewhere nearby and open up an irrigation project we have in mind. If not, we'll use our holdings to raise wheat and livestock. The proposition is a sound investment either way you look at it."
"A few years ago," said Wade, "I and several others leased upwards of twenty thousand acres of grass land here in the valley for stock grazing purposes. I, personally, filed a claim on the land I now call my home ranch. Our lease, which is direct from the Government, gives us entire control of the land so long as we pay for it.
"Besides ourselves, there are a number of ranches in the valley, all of them cattle and horse outfits. There has always been a tacit agreement that sheep should not be grazed here because sheep and cattle can't live on the same range in large numbers. Until Moran came here, we had no trouble whatever—the sheep ranchers kept to their own side of the mountains and we cattlemen kept to ours. Since Moran has arrived, however, the sheep have crossed the Divide in thousands, until the entire valley is being overrun with them.
"Only this morning, Moran admitted to me that the sheep men are acting with his authority and backing. Senator Rexhill, this is wrong, and your agent, or manager, is making a big mistake. Since you are the prime mover in this matter, your arrival is even more opportune than I at first thought, because you have the power to immediately correct your hired man's mistake. So far as we cattle ranchers can learn, Moran is bringing sheep in here with the deliberate intention of starving us out of our homes. He seems to want our range and he—I'll not say you—thinks that such a course is the cheapest way to gain possession. He'll find it the dearest in the end. Unless the sheep are moved mighty soon, we shall be mixed up in one of the bloodiest little wars in the history of the range country. Mark you, I'm no firebrand,—some call me too conservative; but we have about reached the limit, and something is bound to happen before many days."
Senator Rexhill drummed with his fingers on the table.
"Um! Does Moran know of this attitude in you and your friends, Gordon?"
"Yes. I have just finished telling him of it. But he merely laughs at us. We are a long way from the courts here, Senator, and we can't easily appeal to the authorities. We are obliged to settle our differences among ourselves. Moran knows this as well as I do; but he forgets that the thing can work two ways. Each day that the sheep are here in the valley they spoil more grass than all our cattle could eat in a week; in two months, if the sheep stay, the range will be as bare as a ball-room floor. Can you wonder that we ranchers are becoming desperate?"
"It's strange," Rexhill commented, apparently much perturbed. "Moran is not the sort to take useless risks. He's dominant, but he's no fool. Well, my boy, I'll talk this over with him; in fact, I really came out here to see how things were shaping up. If things can be peacefully arranged, that's the way we want them. We're not looking for trouble. Certainly, you are quite right to object to sheep being run on your leased pasture. I'll look into it right away and see what can be done."
"Thank you." Wade was much relieved and he showed it. "I felt sure that an appeal to your sense of fair play would not be fruitless. I'm mighty glad you are in town."
"Gordon!" a girl's voice exclaimed softly behind him.
"Helen!" He sprang to his feet and turned to seize her hands.
Those who admired Helen Rexhill at Washington social functions never saw her look more lovely than she did at this moment of meeting with Wade, for the reason that all the skill of the costumer could not beautify her so much as the radiance of love now in her face. The dress she wore was far from inexpensive, but it was cut with the art which conceals art, and to Wade it appeared simple.
Yet his first sensation was one of acute disappointment, which he strove rather ineffectually, to conceal. Doubtless, this was because his recollection of her had soared beyond the bounds of human perfection. But the gown, which she had chosen with so keen a wish to impress him, reminded him of the simple frocks which Dorothy Purnell wore, and in Helen Rexhill's face there was not the same sweet simplicity of expression which distinguished her rival. Flaming love was there, to transform her from the suggestion of a lily to that of a pomegranate; but it was the love that demands and devours, rather than the constant affection which, in giving all, seeks nothing but the privilege of loving in return. Without actually analyzing the impression which Helen made upon him, Wade felt something of the truth of this, and was disappointed in the realization of his dream of her. Materially she was too perfect, too exotic, for the setting of Crawling Water.
"Why, you look just the same," she happily exclaimed. "And I? Have I changed? Now, be careful what you say! You're not a bit of a courtier."
"Everything changes, doesn't it?" he said, slowly feeling his way. "Except the heart?" His answer pleased her.
"Will you listen to that, Father? In the cattle country, too."
"Very pretty," the Senator observed judicially. "Inspired, perhaps."
"How long are you going to stay?" asked Wade.
Helen laughed happily.
"Perhaps that will depend upon how glad I think you are to have us."
She gave him an ardent glance, which he was not proof against, nor would any other man have been so.
"No doubt of that." He laughed with her, his disappointment passing before the old love spell, which she knew so well how to cast about him. "You couldn't have come at a better time, either, for now there is some one here who can be company for you. That is," he added lamely, "when you're tired of having me around."
"Really?" Helen was a bit chilled by this obvious faux pas. Truly, despite his worth as a man, Gordon Wade was no courtier. "Who is it?"
"Of course, you haven't heard of her, but you'll like her. She's Miss Dorothy Purnell. Everybody does like her."
Helen affected a gayety which she could scarcely have been expected to feel. Although she was not socially adept in concealing her real feeling, Wade saw nothing wrong. Only the Senator twisted his mouth in a grim smile.
"Oh, but I have heard of her; indeed, I have. Mr. Moran sent me a little photograph of you both on horseback. Just see how her fame has crossed the continent. I shall be charmed to meet her."
A great light dawned upon Wade.
"Then that was what he wanted with the picture," he exclaimed. "We wondered at the time. I thought it pretty impudent of him, but, of course, if he wanted it just to send to you, that was all right."
Miss Rexhill winced inwardly. In spite of herself, her face expressed a certain amount of pique, for the implication was manifestly that if Race Moran had wanted the picture for himself, the idea would have been intolerable to Wade.
"Oh, yes, quite all right. You seem...." She checked herself, with the reproach upon her tongue, reflecting that, after all, she was most fond of Wade because of his naturalness. Maxwell Frayne, for instance, was without a peer in spinning graceful phrases; but he spun little else.
"But I don't understand why he should send it to you," Wade said, in a low tone, as the Senator turned to bend over an open traveling bag on a nearby chair. "Is he—do you—?" A slight rigor of jealousy seemed to seize upon him, under the witchery of her slow smile.
"Oh, he's been writing to me, and I suppose he thought I'd be interested. Of course, I was." She leaned toward him a trifle, a mere swaying of her body, like a lily in a breeze, and impulsively he placed his big hand over hers.
"He'd better not—he'd better mind his own business!" he said grimly.
She laughed softly, tantalizingly, and being human, Wade kissed her; the Senator being still busy with the contents of the bag.
Thus engaged, none of them heard a knock at the door, which finally opened before Moran, who, even if he did not actually see the kiss, could hardly have failed to suspect it from their embarrassed manner. Helen felt sure from his annoyed expression that he had witnessed the caress, and she was rather glad of it.
He exchanged a slightly stiff greeting with the rancher, and then while Wade and Helen continued their talk, the agent spoke in a carefully guarded undertone with his employer. The news he brought, whatever it was, seemed significant, for the Senator appeared worried and presently turned to Wade.
"You'll not mind if I go over to the office with Moran, Gordon?"
"Certainly not, Senator. Don't let me interrupt you. But what's the use of us staying indoors, Helen? The sun has turned now and it's cooler out. I'll show you something of our little metropolis. Or, I tell you what we'll do! Why not let me take you over and introduce you to the only woman you're likely to find congenial in this neighborhood? She'll be glad to meet you, I know."
In any other company, Miss Rexhill would probably have resented an invitation to call upon a rival, even apart from the ethics of social calls, but not before Race Moran. Before him, she would not humble Wade in the least degree, if only because to do so would reflect upon her own preference between the men. She could only pretend to welcome the prospect of going to see Miss Purnell, and she played her part well.
"We may as well stay here now," Rexhill said, when the two young people had left the room. "When did all this happen?"
"I just got word of it," Moran answered, a bit excitedly. "Don't you see how it plays right into our hands? It's the greatest thing that could have happened for us. It might have been made to order."
"Are you sure it wasn't? Are you sure you didn't have the man shot, Race?" Senator Rexhill's tone was very dry and he watched his companion keenly as he asked the question.
Moran assumed an attitude of indignation.
"Tush! I want to know where we stand. By God, Race, you mustn't go too far! We're traveling mighty close to the wind as it is."
"But these brawls are likely to happen at any time. This one in particular has been brewing for weeks. Why connect me with it, unnecessarily?"
"All right. I see your point, of course. The assassin is unknown; suspicion naturally falls upon Wade, who is at the head of the cattle faction and who, as you say, threatened Jensen only this morning. If we can jail him for awhile his party is likely to fall down."
"Exactly!" Moran cried eagerly. "Fortune has placed him right in our hands."
"Well, I'm not going to have him arrested," Rexhill announced doggedly, "at least, not on any trumped up charge. He's broken my bread, Helen likes him. We call him a friend, in fact. I always play square with my friends—as far as possible. Strategy is strategy, nobody can quarrel with that; but this thing you propose is something more."
Moran, while listening, had restrained his impatience with difficulty. He not only had reason on his side, but personal hate as well. His sense of triumph in bringing the news to Rexhill had not been for their mutual cause alone; it had seemed to Moran to point toward the end of his rivalry with Wade for the love of Helen. To have the fruits of victory snatched from him, because of a sentiment of friendship, was almost more than the agent could stand for.
"Good God, Senator," he burst out, "don't throw this chance away! Think what it means to us! We are running close to the wind, and until this moment, it's been a toss up whether we'd get out of here with our lives; whether I would, at any rate. I've run a mighty big bluff on these cattle people, but I did it because it was the only way. I've held my own so far, but when they find out that it's not farm land we're after, but ore—why, Senator, there'll be no holding them at all! With Wade at their head and forty miles between us and the cars, where would we get off? We'd be lucky if we didn't swing from the limb of a tree. Do you suppose Wade would remember then that he'd broken your bread? I'll bet dollars to doughnuts he wouldn't.
"But"—his voice sank to a significant whisper—"if we land him in jail...."
"His friends here would get him out," interposed the Senator, nervously wiping his glasses.
"Then Uncle Sam would put him in again, with a troop of cavalry to keep order here, and that would be another advantage gained for our side. No, sir, once we get him in jail, we've got the law with us and against him, don't forget that. Then the cattle party would lay mighty low. Wade has been their leader right along. I tell you, it's the only way, and you know what it means to us—to you."
"You don't have to tell me that," rasped Rexhill. "If we fail to put this through, I'm a ruined man."
Moran's eyes gleamed.
"Well, then, it's the only way, unless—unless...."
"Unless your daughter marries him, and it all comes into the family." Upon that point, Moran wished to know just where he stood.
"I've never made a dollar through my daughter yet, and I never will," said the Senator grimly. "I'm not selling my own flesh and blood. I'll rot in the poor-house first."
Moran gently breathed his relief. He would have fought to the fullest extent of his power to have aborted such a marriage, but if the Senator had favored it, he knew that it would have been difficult to prevent.
"Wade has a foreman he's mighty fond of, an old man named Santry," the agent remarked, trying another tack.
"That's a horse of another color." Rexhill appeared aroused, at last. "I remember the old fellow. He must be nearly ready for the bone yard by this time anyhow. Saddle it on him, if you can. Wade's devoted to him. He'd do as much for Santry as for himself, maybe more."
"I've heard about that kind of devotion," the agent sneered, "but I've yet to see a sample of it."
"Well, you may before long. Your first proposition's no good anyway. It would simply further antagonize Wade's friends. It's quite possible, though, that Santry might have been mixed up in such a brawl. Get him arrested, and then we'll let Wade know, gradually, that our influence is at his command, for a price. I've no objection to that—none at all. By Heaven, we've got to do something."
"We'll do it all right. I'll have a warrant sworn out."
"Meanwhile, Race, go easy with those sheep. Wade was telling me about them, and as a matter of strategy, I had to pretend that I would help him. Move them across the Divide until we see what comes of this Santry affair. I can't go too heavy with the boy right at the start."
"All right." Moran arose. "The sheep don't count much now anyway."
"I don't mind saying, Race," Senator Rexhill observed, a trifle pompously, "that you've done pretty well so far. If you stick to it, you'll not find me ungrateful when the battle is over. You'll be entitled to your reward."
Moran hesitated, seeming to summon courage to say something.
"Maybe you've guessed the reward I'll ask, Senator," he said slowly. "There are some things that mean more to a man than mere money. I'm thinking of Miss Helen."
Rexhill found some difficulty in placing his gaze so that it would appear to naturally fall elsewhere than on Moran. He was mortified by a sense of shame that he could not deal squarely with this aspirant for his daughter's hand. He had been sincere in saying that he would never barter her to further his own interests, but so much hung in the balance here that until the issue really arose he feared to pass upon it. He felt himself stultified by this truth.
"I haven't spoken to her, Senator, because the time has not come, and just now she's too much occupied elsewhere, perhaps. But all my hopes are fixed on her, sir, and when the time does come, I trust you'll not oppose them."
Rexhill coughed to hide what his face might otherwise have shown.
"Well, Race," he said, with a choking sensation that was new to him, "you know what I think of you. As for the rest, well, that will depend entirely upon Helen."
"How do you think you'd like to live in Crawling Water?"
Wade looked whimsically at Helen, as she picked her way with the grace of a kitten through the dust of the main street. Carefully though she walked, her shoes and the bottom of her skirt were covered with dust, and gray with it.
"I shouldn't like it," she said, with a little moue. "I don't see why you stay here. You aren't going to always, are you?"
"I reckon it's likely."
"Not—for always?" She had stopped and was looking up into his face with delicious dismay. "That would be awful."
"Most of my friends, and all of my business interests are here. Besides, I have a kind of pride in growing up with this country. Back in the East, things have been settled for so long that a man's only a cog in a machine. Out here, a fellow has a sense of ownership, even in the hills. I think it's because he gets closer to the soil, until he comes to love it and to be almost a part of it."
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed the girl. "That sounds fine, but the reality isn't up to my anticipation of it."
Wade laughed in his hearty way.
"That's only because you haven't been here long enough, Helen."
"There are things that are splendid about the West," she generously admitted. "Its vastness and wholesomeness, and especially its men. I'm sure that's why I first liked you, Gordon, because you were different—not like the general run of young men in the East."
"Oh, there are lots of good men East, too."
"Not so very many. At least, I have seen very few who were at all worth while. There's one, Maxwell Frayne, who has been plaguing me for months; but I don't care for him—much." She was closely watching him as she spoke, and she smiled when he started.
"You'd better not."
"But if I really thought you meant to stay here all the time, I'm sure I'd love him devotedly. Now"—she eyed him mischievously—"I think this would be a nice place to call home, don't you know, just for fun, and then spend most of the time in New York and London. See that man staring at me!"
"How, staring at you?"
Wade turned and looked in the direction she indicated, surprised at the suggestion that she was being annoyed in Crawling Water, where chivalry to women ran high.
"Oh, he didn't mean anything, I daresay."
"They're friends of mine, and curious, perhaps." He referred to a group of cattlemen across the street, who did seem to be staring and talking, with some indecision in their attitude. "I wonder if anything can have happened? Oh, I guess not. Well, what would I do in London?"
"I didn't say anything about you being in London, did I?"
"Well, it's safe to say that where you were, I'd want to be, at any rate. Haven't I made two trips to Chicago for no real reason except to see you?" he demanded, fast slipping into the thralldom of her fascination.
She viewed him through half-closed eyes, knowing that the pose has always allured him.
"Don't you think you'd be kept busy looking after me?" she playfully asked. "Seriously, I hate an idle man, but I don't know what you'd find to do there. What a question. You'd have to have investments that would take you over every year or two."
"Now you're trying to make a city man of me," he said, half in jest. "Besides,"—a dogged note crept into his voice—"I'd have the right to expect something of you, wouldn't I?"
"Not the right, but the privilege," she answered softly.
"This is where the Purnells live." He turned her into the pathway to the door. "This is what I'd like, a neat little home like this, with a couple of kiddies and some dogs. Then I could spend my out-door time at the ranch."
Before Helen could reply to this, Mrs. Purnell appeared on the threshold to welcome them, but to Wade's surprise, she told them that Dorothy was not there.