IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE PRINCESS OF FORGE
THE ISLE OF STRIFE
THE INCORRIGIBLE DUKANE
THE LADY OF MYSTERY HOUSE
THE INVISIBLE ENEMY
IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS
IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS
GEORGE C. SHEDD
"THE LADY OF MYSTERY HOUSE," ETC.
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
Copyright, 1919, By THE MACAULAY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY THE FRANK A. MUNSEY CO.
CHAPTER PAGE I IN A HOSTILE COUNTRY 11 II A COMEDY—AND SOMETHING ELSE 23 III THE ENEMY'S SPAWN 34 IV A SECRET CONFERENCE 42 V A SHOT IN THE DARK 53 VI JANET HOSMER 64 VII IN THE COIL 75 VIII THE GATHERING STORM 83 IX AN UNEXPECTED ALLY 91 X BY RIGHT OF POSSESSION 99 XI JANET AND MARY 107 XII THE PLOT 116 XIII THE CURRENT OF EVENTS 121 XIV OLD SAUREZ' DEPOSITION 135 XV THE MASK DROPPED 145 XVI WEIR TAKES UP THE HUNT 158 XVII EARTH'S RETRIBUTION 167 XVIII IN THE NIGHT WATCHES 177 XIX A QUEER PAPER 189 XX ANXIETIES 197 XXI THE WEAK LINK 209 XXII AN OLD ADOBE HOUSE 219 XXIII WITH FANGS BARED 226 XXIV THE ALARM 238 XXV NO QUARTER 248 XXVI THE THUNDERBOLT 256 XXVII WEIR STRIKES WHILE THE IRON IS HOT 261 XXVIII VORSE 270 XXIX THE FOURTH MAN 279 XXX THE VICTOR 286 XXXI A FINAL CHALLENGE 294 XXXII THE RECLUSE 304 XXXIII UNDER THE MOON 314
IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS
IN A HOSTILE COUNTRY
Eastward out of the Torquilla Range the Burntwood River emerged from a gorge, flowing swift and turbulent during the spring months, shallow and murmurous the rest of the year, to pass through a basin formed by low mountains and break forth at last from a canyon and wind away over the mesa. In the canyon was being erected the huge reservoir dam which was in the future to store water for irrigating the broad acres spreading from its base.
The construction camp rested on one of the hillsides above the dam. And here one summer afternoon a man stepped forth from the long low tar-papered shack that served as headquarters, directing his gaze down the road across the mesa at a departing automobile. He was Steele Weir, the new chief, a tall, strong, tanned man of thirty-five, with lean smooth-shaven face, a straight heavy nose, mouth that by habit was set in grim lines, and heavy brows under which ruled cold, level, insistent, gray eyes. He had come suddenly, unexpectedly, returning with Magney, the engineer in charge, when the latter had been summoned east for a conference with the company's directors. He had replaced Magney, who was now whirling away to the nearest railway point, Bowenville, thirty-five miles distant.
He thoughtfully watched the car, a black spot in a haze of dust, speeding towards the New Mexican town of San Mateo, on the Burntwood River two miles below camp, its cluster of brown adobe houses showing indistinctly through the cottonwoods that embowered the place. For Magney he felt a certain amount of sympathy, for the engineer was leaving with a recognition of defeat; he was a likeable man, as Steele Weir had discovered during their brief acquaintance, a good theoretical engineer, but lacking in the prime quality of a successful chief—fighting spirit and an indomitable will.
Under Magney the work of construction had been inaugurated the previous summer, but progress had not been as rapid as desired; there had been delays, labor difficulties, local opposition during the months since; and Weir had been chosen to succeed Magney. In his profession Weir had a reputation, built on relentless toil and sound ideas and daring achievements—a reputation enhanced by a character of mystery, for the man was unmarried, reserved, without intimates or even friends, locking his lips about his life, and welcoming and executing with grim indifference to risk engineering commissions of extreme hazard, on which account he had acquired the soubriquet of "Cold Steel" Weir.
Who first bestowed upon Weir that name is not known. But it was not misapplied. Cold steel he had proved himself to be a score of times in critical moments when other men would have broken: in pushing bridges over mountain chasms, in mine disasters, in strikes, in almost hopeless fights against bandits in Mexico. And it was this ability to handle difficulties that had brought about the decision of the directors of the company to put him in charge, as the man best qualified, at San Mateo, where the situation was unsatisfactory, costly, baffling.
Since his arrival a week before he had been consulting with Magney, studying maps and blue-prints, examining the work and analyzing general conditions. What had been accomplished had been well done; he had no criticism to offer on that score. It was the delay; the work was considerably behind schedule, which of course meant excessive cost; and this had undermined the spirit of the enterprise. In a dozen places, in a dozen ways, Magney, his predecessor, had been hampered, checked, defeated—and the main contributing cause was poor workmen, inefficient work. On that sore Weir's skillful finger fell at once.
Standing there before the low office building he watched Magney depart. He, Steele Weir, had now taken over full charge of the camp and assumed full responsibility for the project's failure or success. His eye passed beyond the distant automobile to the town of San Mateo—a new town for him, but a town like many he had seen in the southwest and in Mexico. And aside from its connection with the construction work, it held a fascinating interest, a profound interest for the man, the interest that any spot would which has at a distance cast a black and sinister shadow over one's life. San Mateo—the name lay like a smoldering coal in his breast!
At length he turned and strode down the hillside to the dam site in the canyon. The time had come to shut his hand about the work and let his hold be felt. He located the superintendent directing the pouring of concrete in the frames of the dam core, Atkinson, a man of fifty with a stubby gray mustache, a wind-bitten face and a tall angular frame. When Weir joined him he was observing with speculative eyes the indolent movements of a group of Mexican laborers.
"Those hombres don't appear to be breaking any speed records, I see," Weir remarked, quietly.
"Humph," Atkinson grunted.
"What do they think this is? A rest cure?"
The superintendent's silence suddenly gave way.
"I ought to land on 'em with an ax-handle and put the fear of God in their lazy souls," he exclaimed, bitterly.
"Well, do it."
"Say, am I hearing right?" Atkinson swung fully about to stare at the new chief. Then he went on, "They'd quit to a man if made to do a man's work; I supposed that Magney had told you that. A dozen times I've been ready to throw up my job from self-respect; I'm ashamed to boss work where men can loaf and I must keep my tongue between my teeth. I was considering just now the matter of leaving."
"No need, Atkinson. From this time these men will work or get their dismissal."
The other pushed his hat atilt and rubbed his head in surprise.
"What about that 'company policy' of hiring nothing but local labor to keep the community friendly which Magney was always kicking about?" he asked. "That was what made him sorer than anything else, and beat him. He said the directors had tied his hands by promising that no workmen should be imported. If they promised that, they sure bunkoed themselves. Friendly, huh."
"The people haven't been friendly, eh?" Weir said.
"Does it look like it when these Mexicans won't work enough to earn their salt? They openly boast that we dare neither make them work nor fire them. They say Sorenson and his bunch will pull every man off the works if we lift a finger; and they all know about that fool promise of the directors. Friendly? Just about as friendly as a bunch of wildcats. This whole section, white men and Mexicans, are putting a knife into this project whenever they can. Do you think they want all that mesa fenced up and farmed? This is a range country; they propose to keep it range; they don't want any more people coming here—farmers, store-keepers, and white people generally."
"That's always the case in a range country before it's opened up," Weir said. "But they have to swallow the pill."
"Let me tell you something; they don't intend to swallow it here. They figure on keeping this county just as it is, for only themselves and their cattle and woolies, and everybody else keep out. The few big sheep and cattle men, white and Mex, have their minds made up to that, and they're the only ones who count; all the rest are poor Mexicans with nothing but fleas, children, goats and votes to keep Sorenson and his gang in control. They've set out to bust this company, or tire it out till it throws up the sponge. They've spiked Magney, and they'll try to spike you next, and every manager who comes. That's plain talk I'm giving you, Mr. Weir, but it's fact; and if it doesn't sound nice to your ears, you can have my resignation any minute."
"I've been hoping to hear it. From now on drive this crowd of coffee-colored loafers. Put the lash on their backs."
A gleam of unholy joy shone in Atkinson's eyes as he heard Weir's words.
"All right; that goes," he said. "But I'm warning you that they'll quit. You'll see 'em stringing out of camp for home to-night, and those who hang out till to-morrow will leave then for sure. By to-morrow night the dam will be as quiet as a church week-days. They'll not show up again, either, until you send word for them to come back—and then they'll know you've surrendered. Magney tried it once, just once. And that's why you found me chewing tobacco so lamb-like and saying nothing."
"Turn your gat loose," Weir said. And turning on his heel, he went back to headquarters.
Before Atkinson fired a volley at the unsuspecting workmen he crossed the canyon to where a cub engineer was peering through a transit. The superintendent had overheard a scrap of gossip among the staff one evening before Weir's arrival when they were discussing the advent of the new chief.
"What was that name you fellows were saying Weir was called by?" he asked.
The boy straightened up.
"'Cold Steel'—'Cold Steel' Weir. Anyway that's what Fergueson says," was the answer. "I never heard it before myself. His first name's Steele, you know, and he looks cold enough to be ice when he's asking questions about things, boring into a fellow with his eyes. But he's up against a hard game here."
"Maybe. But a man doesn't get a name like that for just parting his hair nice," Atkinson remarked. "He told me to stretch 'em"—a horny thumb jerked towards the workmen—"and you'll see some real work hereabouts for the rest of the afternoon."
"And to-morrow will be Sunday three days ahead of time."
"You know as much about that as I do. Make your own guess." With which the speaker started off.
The morrow was "Sunday" with a vengeance. The majority of the laborers demanded their pay checks the minute work ceased at the end of the afternoon; Atkinson tightened orders, and by noon next day the last of the Mexicans had quit. The fires in the stationary engines were banked; the concrete mixers did not revolve; the conveyers were still; the dam site wore an air of abandonment. In headquarters the engineers worked over tracings or notes; and in the commissary store the half-dozen white foremen gathered to smoke and yarn. That was the extent of the activity.
Two days passed. After dinner Weir held a terse long-distance telephone conversation, the only incident of the second day; and it was overheard by no one. On the fourth day this was repeated. At dawn of the fifth he despatched all of the foremen, enginemen and engineers with wagons to Bowenville; and about the middle of the afternoon, accompanied by his assistant, Meyers, and Atkinson, he sped in the manager's car down the river for San Mateo, two miles below the camp.
Of the town Steele Weir had had but a glimpse as he flashed through on his way to the dam the morning of his arrival twelve days earlier. It had but a single main street, from which littered side streets and alleys ran off between mud walls of houses. The county court house sat among cottonwood trees in an open space. A few pretentious dwellings, homes of white men and the well-to-do Mexicans, arose among long low adobe structures that were as brown and characterless as the sun-dried bricks of which they were built. That was San Mateo.
Before doors and everywhere along the street workmen from the dam were idling. As Meyers brought the automobile to a stop before the court house, news of Weir's visit spread miraculously and Mexicans began to saunter forward to hear the engineer's words of surrender, couched in the form of a suave invitation to return to work. While the crowd gathered the three Americans sat quietly in the car. Then Steele Weir stood up.
"Who can speak for these men?" he demanded.
A lean Mexican with a long shiny black mustache and a thin neck protruding from a soiled linen collar elbowed a way to the front.
"I'm authorized to speak for them," he announced, disclosing his white teeth in an engaging smile.
"Are you one of the workmen?"
"No. I'm a lawyer and represent them in this controversy. By your favor therefore let us proceed. You've come to persuade them to resume work, and that is well. But there are conditions to be agreed upon before they return, which with your permission I shall state—first, no harsh driving of the workmen by foremen; second, full wages for the days they have been idle; third, no Sunday work."
The engineer regarded the speaker without change of countenance.
"Have you finished?" he asked.
"Yes. There are minor matters, but they can be adjusted later. These are the important points."
"Very well, this is my reply: I, not the workmen, make the terms for work on this job—I, not these men, name the conditions on which they may return. And they are as follows: no pay for the idle days; if the workmen return they agree to work as ordered by superintendent and foremen; and last, they must start for the dam within an hour or not at all."
Incredulity, amazement rested on the Mexican spokesman's face as he listened to this curt rejoinder.
"Preposterous, impossible, absurd!" he exclaimed. Then revolving on his heels so as to face the crowd he swiftly repeated in Spanish what Weir had said.
An angry stir followed, murmurs, sullen looks, a number of oaths and jeers. The lawyer turned again to the engineer, spreading his hands in a wide gesture and lifting his brows with exaggerated significance.
"You see, Mr. Weir, your position is hopeless," he remarked.
"Ask them if they definitely refuse."
The lawyer put the question to the crowd. A chorus of shouts vehemently gave affirmation—a refusal immediate, disdainful, unanimous.
"We'll now discuss the men's terms," the lawyer remarked politely and with an air of satisfaction.
"There's nothing more to discuss. The matter is settled. They have refused; they need not seek work at the dam again. Start the car, Meyers."
The roar of the machine drowned the indignant lawyer's protest, the crowd hastened to give an opening and the conference was at an end.
"Drive to Vorse's saloon; I want a look at Vorse," said Weir. "I see the place a short way ahead."
When they entered the long low adobe building an anemic-appearing Mexican standing at the far end of the bar languidly started forward to serve them, but a bald-headed, hawk-nosed man seated at a desk behind the cigar-case laid aside his newspaper, arose and checked the other by a sidewise jerk of his head.
He received their orders for beer and lifted three dripping bottles from a tub of water at his feet. His eyes passed casually over Steele Weir's face, glanced away, then came back for a swift unblinking scrutiny. The eyes his own met were as hard, stony and inscrutable as his own. Finally Vorse, the saloon-keeper, turned his gaze towards the window and extracting a quill tooth-pick from a vest pocket began thoughtfully to pick his teeth.
"You're the new manager at the dam?" he asked presently, still considering the street through the window.
"And your name is Weir?"
"You've got it right."
The questions ended there. The three men from camp slowly consumed their beer and exchanged indifferent remarks. At the end of five minutes the Mexican lawyer, clutching the arm of an elderly, gray-mustached man, entered the saloon.
They lined up at the bar nearby the others. The older of the pair regarded the trio shrewdly, laid a calf-bound book that he carried under his arm upon the counter and ordered "a little bourbon." When he had swallowed this, he addressed the men from the engineering camp.
"Which of you is Mr. Weir?"
"I am he," Steele replied.
"Mr. Martinez here has solicited me, Mr. Weir, to use my offices in explaining to you the workmen's point of view in the controversy that exists relative to the work. I'm Senator Gordon, a member of the state legislature, and I have no interest in the matter beyond seeing an amicable and just arrangement effected."
Steele Weir fixed his eyes on the speaker with an intentness, a cold penetration, that seemed to bore to the very recesses of his mind. In that look there was something questioning and something menacing.
"There's no controversy and hence no need of your services. The men stopped work, refused to return, and now the case is closed."
"My dear sir, let us talk it over," said the Senator, bringing forth a pair of spectacles and setting the bow upon his nose.
The engineer's visage failed to relax at this pacific proposal.
"I gave them their chance and they declined; they'll have no other," he stated. "Those men have browbeaten the company long enough. They refused, and as I anticipated that refusal I made preparations accordingly; a hundred and fifty white workmen arrived at Bowenville from Denver this morning and a hundred and fifty more will come to-morrow. They will do the work."
The Senator's lips quivered and the upper one lifted in a movement like a snarl, showing tobacco-stained teeth.
"The matter isn't closed, understand that," he snapped out. "We have the directors' promise no outside labor shall be brought in here for this job, and the promise shall be kept."
"The new men go to work in the morning," Weir said.
"You'll repent of this action, young man, you'll repent of it." The Senator seized the whisky bottle and angrily poured himself a second drink. "You'll repent of it as sure as your name is—is—whatever it is."
The engineer took a step nearer the older man. His face now was as hard as granite.
"Weir is my name," he said. "Did you ever hear it before?"
"Weir—Weir?" came in a questioning mutter.
The speaker's eyes held the Senator's in savage leash, and a slight tremble presently began to shake the old man. Atkinson and Meyers and even the volatile Mexican lawyer, Martinez, remained unstirring, for in the situation they suddenly sensed something beyond their ken, some current of deep unknown forces, some play of fierce, obscure and fateful passion.
A shadow of gray stole over Gordon's lineaments.
"You are—are the son of——" came gasping forth.
"I am. His son."
"And I know what happened thirty years ago in this selfsame room!"
The whisky that the Senator had poured into his glass suddenly slopped over his fingers; his figure all at once appeared more aged, hollow, bent. Without further word, with his hand still shaking, he set the glass on the bar, mechanically picked up the law book and walked feebly towards the door.
Steele Weir turned his gaze on the saloon-keeper, Vorse. The man's right hand was under the bar and he seemed to be awaiting the engineer's next move, taut, tight-lipped, malignant.
"That was for you too, Vorse," was flung at him. "One Weir went out of here, but another has returned."
And he led his companions away.
A COMEDY—AND SOMETHING ELSE
Towards noon one day a week later Steele Weir, headed for Bowenville in his car, had gained Chico Creek, half way between camp and San Mateo, when he perceived that another machine blocked the ford. About the wheels of the stalled car the shallow water rippled briskly, four or five inches deep; entirely deep enough, by all appearances, to keep marooned in the runabout the girl sitting disconsolately at the wheel.
She was a very attractive-looking girl, Steele noted casually as he brought his own car to a halt and sprang out to join her, wading the water with his laced boots. As he approached he perceived that she had a slender well-rounded figure, fine-spun brown hair under her hat brim, clear brown eyes and the pink of peach blossoms in her soft smooth cheeks.
But her look of relief vanished when she distinguished his face and her shoulders squared themselves.
"Has your engine stopped?" he inquired.
"I'll look into the hood."
"I prefer that you would not."
For an instant surprise marked his countenance.
"You mean that you desire to remain here?" he asked.
"I don't wish to remain here, but I choose that in preference to your aid."
The man, who had bent forward to lift one cover of the engine, straightened up at that. He considered her intently and in silence for a time, marking her heightened color, the haughty poise of her head, the firm set of her lips.
"To my knowledge, I never saw you before in my life," he remarked at last. "What, may I ask, is your particular reason for declining my services?"
She was dumb for a little, while she tucked back a stray tendril of hair. The act was performed with the left hand; and Weir's eyes, which seldom missed anything, observed a diamond flash on the third finger.
"Well, I'd choose not to explain," said she, afterwards, "but if you insist——"
"I don't insist, I merely request ... your highness."
A flash of anger shot from her eyes at this irony.
"Don't think I'm afraid to tell you!" she cried. "It's because you're the manager of the construction camp; and if you've never seen me before, I've at least had you pointed out to me. I wish no assistance from the man who turns off his poor workmen without excuse or warning, and brings want and trouble upon the community. It was like striking them in the face. And then you break your promise not to bring in other workmen!"
As she had said, she did not lack courage. Her words gushed forth in a torrent, as if an expression of pent up and outraged justice, disclosing a fervent sympathy and a fine zeal—and, likewise, a fine ignorance of the facts.
"Well, why don't you say something?" she added, when he gave no indication of replying.
Steele could have smiled at this feminine view of the matter that violent assertions required affirmations or denials.
"What am I supposed to say?" he asked.
Apparently that exhausted her patience.
"You'll please molest me no longer," she stated, icily.
He raised the hood and inspected the engine. During his attempts to start it, she sat nonchalantly humming an air and gazing at the mountains as if her mind were a thousand miles away—which it was not.
"Something wrong; it will have to be hauled in," said he finally.
No reply. Steele returned to his own car and descending into the creek bed worked his way around her. When he was on the far bank, he rejoined her again, carrying a coil of rope. One end of this he fastened securely to the rear axle of her runabout.
"What are you going to do, sir?" she demanded, whirling about on her seat and glaring angrily.
"Drag you out."
"You'll do nothing of the kind!"
"Oh, yes," was his calm response.
"Against my wishes, sir?"
"This is abominable!"
"I'll put on the brakes." And put them on she did, with a savage jerk.
But nevertheless Weir's powerful machine drew her car slowly up out of the creek upon the road, where he forced it about until it pointed towards San Mateo. Then he retied the rope on the front axle.
"Now for town," said he.
"Why did you haul me out of there, I demand to know?"
"Why? Because you were a public obstruction blocking traffic. If you had remained there long enough you would have become a public nuisance; and it's the duty of every citizen to abate nuisances. No one would call you a nuisance, of course,—not to your face, at any rate. But travelers might have felt some annoyance if compelled to drive around you; they might even have had you arrested when they learned you were acting out of willful stubbornness."
In a sort of incredulous wonder, of charmed horror, the girl heard herself thus unfeelingly described.
"You—you barbarian!" she cried.
"Ready? We're off for town now."
"I'll run my car in the ditch and wreck it if you so much as pull it another inch!"
"I don't like to be frustrated in my generous acts; they are so few, according to common report. Well, we'll leave the car, but it must be drawn off the road."
When this was accomplished, Weir replaced the rope in his machine. Then he returned to her.
"What now? Do you intend to sit here in the hot sunshine, to say nothing of missing your dinner?"
"That doesn't concern you."
Weir shook his head gravely.
"You must be saved from your own folly," said he.
Before she had realized what was happening, he had opened the door of the runabout, swung her out upon the ground and was marching her towards his own machine. Stupefaction at this quick, atrocious deed left her an automaton; and before she had fully regained her control they were speeding towards San Mateo, she at his side.
"This is outrageous!" she gasped.
Steele Weir did not speak until they entered town.
"Where is your home?" he asked.
"Turn to the right at the end of the street."
It was before a house of modern structure, banked with a bewildering number of flowers and shaded by trees, that he halted the car. He alighted, bared his head, assisted her to descend, bowed and then without a word drove away, leaving her to stare after him with a baffling mixture of feelings and the single indignant statement, "And he didn't even wait long enough for me to thank him!" Nor did her perplexity lessen when her car was left before the door during the afternoon by one of the camp mechanics to whom Weir had telephoned from San Mateo and who had put it in running order.
Weir himself proceeded to Bowenville, where matters regarding shipments and the unloading of machinery engaged him the rest of the day. Into his mind, however, there floated at moments the image of the girl's face, banish it as he would. He had learned her name by asking who was the owner of the house where she had alighted, information necessary to direct the mechanic as to the delivery of the stalled car. Hosmer it was; and the residence was that of Dr. Hosmer. Presumably she was his daughter. And what a vivid, charming, never-surrender enemy! Lucky the chap who had won this high-spirited girl.
The memory of her eyes and her personality was still with him when he ate his supper that evening in a restaurant in Bowenville. His own past in relation to the other sex had been starred by no love affair, not even by episodes of a sentimental nature; the character of his work had for long periods kept him away from women's society, but further than this there was the shadow upon his life, the shadow of mystery that obliged him to follow a solitary course. He considered himself unfree to seek friendships or favors among women. By every demand of honor he was bound to solicit no girl's trust or affection until that mystery was cleared and his father's innocence established. It was for this reason that he seemed even to himself to grow more hard, more harsh, more silent and aloof, until at last he had come to believe that no fair face had the power to arouse his interest or to quicken his pulse.
But now, this girl he had met at the ford!
Long-stifled emotions struggled in his breast. Sleeping desires awoke. His spirit swelled like a caged thing within the shell of years of indurated habit. A strange restlessness pervaded him. He had a fierce passion somehow to rip in pieces the gray drab pattern of his commonplace life.
Perhaps it was this revolt against the fetters of fate that caused him to welcome the chance for action that presently was offered. The restaurant was of an ordinary type, with a lunch counter at one side, a row of tables down the middle and half a dozen booths along the wall offering some degree of privacy. In one of these Steele Weir was smoking a cigar and finishing his coffee before making his ride back to camp. From the booth adjoining he had for some time been hearing scraps of conversation; now all at once the voices rose in protest and in answering explanation, in perplexed appeal and earnest assurance.
Weir's own reflections ceased. His head turned and remained fixed to listen, while the cigar grew cold between his fingers. For ten minutes or so his attitude of concentrated harkening to the two voices, a girl's and a man's, remained unchanged. Little by little he was piecing out the thread of the confidential dialogue—and of the little drama being enacted in the booth.
His brows became lowering as he gathered its significance, his lips drew together in a tight thin line. He did not move when he heard the man push back his chair to leave the place, nor alter his position until there came the sound of the door closing at the front of the restaurant. Then he reached for his hat, stood up and went lightly around into the other booth, where he pulled the green calico curtain across the opening.
A girl of about seventeen, of plump clean prettiness, still sat at the table, which was littered with dishes. The cheap finery of her hat and dress showed a pathetic attempt to increase her natural comeliness. At this minute her face showed amazement and a hint of apprehension.
"What are you coming in here for?" she demanded.
"I want to talk to you for a little while," Weir replied, seating himself. "You will please listen. I've overheard enough of your talk to catch its drift; you came here to be married, but now this man wants to induce you to go to Los Angeles first."
"That isn't any of your business," the girl flashed back, going white and red by turns.
"I'm making it mine, however. You live up on Terry Creek, by what I heard; that's not far from my camp. I'm manager at the dam and my name's Weir."
At this statement the girl shrank back, beginning to bite the hem of her handkerchief nervously and gazing at him with terrified eyes.
"I'm here to help you, not harm you. You've run away from home to-day to marry this fellow. Did he promise to marry you if you came to Bowenville?"
"And now he wants you to go with him to Los Angeles first, promising to marry you there?"
The girl hesitated, with a wavering look.
"He gives you excuses, of course. But they don't satisfy your mind, do they? They don't satisfy mine, at any rate. It's the old trick. Suppose when you reached the coast he didn't marry you after all and put you off with more promises and after a week or two abandoned you?"
"Oh, he wouldn't do that!" she cried, with a gulp.
"That's just what he is planning. He didn't meet you here until after dark, I judge. You'll both go to the train separately—I overheard that part. Afterwards he could return from the coast and deny that he had ever had anything to do with you, and it would simply be your word against his. And which would people hereabouts believe, tell me that, which would they believe, yours or his, after you had gone wrong?"
The girl sat frozen. Then suddenly she began to cry, softly and with jerks of her shoulders. Weir reached out and patted her arm.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Mary, I'm interfering in your affairs only because I know what men will do. You must take no chances. If this fellow is really anxious to marry you, he'll do it here in Bowenville."
After a few sobs she wiped her eyes.
"He said he didn't dare get the license in San Mateo, or his folks would have stopped our marriage."
"Then you should stay here to-night, go to the next county seat and be married to-morrow. His parents are bound to learn about it once you're married. A few days more or less make no difference. And though I should return to my work, I'll just stay over a day and take you in my car to-morrow to see that you're married straight and proper. Why go clear to Los Angeles?"
"He said it would be our honeymoon—and—and I had never been away from here."
"What's his name?"
She hesitated in uncertainty whether or not she should answer.
"Ed Sorenson," came at last from her lips.
Steele Weir slowly thrust his head forward, fixing her with burning eyes.
"Son of the big cattleman?" he demanded.
"And you love him?"
"Yes, oh, yes!"
Weir sat back in his seat, lighted a cigarette and stared past her head at the opposite partition. The evil strain of the father had been continued in the son and was working here to seduce this simple, ignorant girl, incited by her physical freshness and the expectation that she should be easy prey.
"Well, I doubt if he loves you," he said, presently.
"He does, he does!"
"If he really does above everything else in the world, he'll be willing to marry you openly, no matter what his father may say or do. That's the test, Mary. If he's in earnest, he'll agree at once to go with us to the next county seat to-morrow and be married there by a minister. Isn't that true? Answer me that squarely; isn't it true?"
"Then by that we'll decide. If he agrees, well and good; if he refuses, that will show him up—show he never had any intention of marrying you. I'm a stranger to you, but I'm your friend. And you're not going to Los Angeles unmarried!"
The last words were uttered in a level menacing tone that caused Mary Johnson to shiver. To her, reared in the humble adobe house on her father's little ranch on Terry Creek, a man who could manage the great irrigation project seemed a figure out of her ken, a vast form working against the sky. His statements were not to be disputed, whatever she might think.
"Yes, sir," she said, just above a whisper.
"All right. Now we'll wait for him. He was coming back for you, wasn't he?"
"Yes. I was to stay at the hotel till train time."
"Is this your grip?"
Weir jerked a thumb towards a worn canvas "telescope" fastened with a single shawl strap, resting in the corner of the booth.
"It's mine. Yes, sir."
"How old is Ed Sorenson," he asked, after a pause.
"About thirty, maybe."
"How old are you?"
"Seventeen next month."
"But sixteen yet this month."
He said nothing more. As the minutes passed, her timorous gaze continued steadfastly on the stern countenance before her. She dully expected something terrible to happen when Ed Sorenson appeared, for she knew Ed would be angry; but she had been powerless to prevent the intrusion of this terrible stranger.
Fear, in truth, a fear that left her heart cold, was her feeling as she contemplated Weir. Yet under that, was there not something else? A sense of safety, of comforting assurance of protection?
"You—you won't hurt Ed if he won't go with us?" she asked, in a low voice. "If he gets mad and won't marry me here, I mean?"
The man's eyes came round to hers.
"I'll just break him in two, nothing more, Mary," was the calm answer.
THE ENEMY'S SPAWN
The curtain to the booth was flung back.
"I've the train tickets; come along to the hotel——" exclaimed the man who quickly entered. But the words died in his mouth at sight of Weir sitting in the place he had vacated.
He was over average height, of strong fleshy build, with a small blonde mustache on his upper lip. Under his eyes little pouches had already begun to form; his mouth was full and sensual; but he still retained an air of liveliness, of carelessness and agility, that might at first sight seem the spontaneity of youth. He wore a brown suit, a gray flannel shirt and Stetson hat—the common apparel of the country.
"Who the devil are you? And what are you butting in here for?" he exclaimed, with a vicious spark showing in his pale blue eyes. At the same time he clapped a hand on Weir's shoulder, closing it in a hard grasp.
Instantly Weir struck the hand off with his fist.
"Keep your dirty flippers to yourself," he said, rising.
The blood faded from the other's countenance, leaving it white with rage.
"Get out of this booth, or I'll throw you out."
It was Weir's turn to act. Like a flash he caught Sorenson's elbow, jerked him forward, spun him about and dropped him upon the chair.
"Sit there, you cradle-robber, until I'm through with you," he commanded. "And if you don't want everybody in this restaurant to know about your business with this girl, you'll lower your voice when you talk."
Sorenson shot an uneasy glance towards the curtain and his wrath became not less furious but better controlled. Clearly public attention was the last thing he desired in this affair. He leaned back, staring at Steele Weir insolently, and produced a cigarette, at which he began to puff.
"Mary, get ready. We'll be going in a minute," said he.
"No, you'll not, Sorenson. I've taken a hand in your game. This girl says you're going to marry her, is that right?" The other rolled his eyes upward and began to whistle a jig tune softly. "Well, this is the plan she and I've made. She'll remain at the hotel to-night—as will you and I—and to-morrow we'll drive to another county seat in my car and you'll secure a licence there. Then you'll go to a minister's, where I'll act as a witness, and the ceremony will be performed. Afterwards the pair of you can proceed to Los Angeles, or elsewhere as you please, on your wedding journey."
"You're quite a little planner, aren't you?" the other jeered.
"That's the arrangement if you agree."
"I don't agree."
Mary Johnson, in whose eyes a light of hope had dawned during Weir's low-toned statement, began nervously to bite her lip.
"Won't you do it, Ed?" she asked, timidly.
"We'll do as I planned, or nothing," he stated. Then with sudden spite he continued, "You're responsible for this mixup. What did you let this fellow in here for while I was gone? Didn't you have sense enough to keep your mouth shut?"
Steele halted him by a gesture.
"Don't begin abusing her; you're not married to her yet. I overheard your talk and guessed the low-lived, scoundrelly trick you proposed to play on her."
"You damned eavesdropper——"
"Sure, eavesdropper is right," Weir interrupted, coolly. "So I just stepped in here from my booth next door to discuss the situation with her; you can't mislead an innocent girl like her with the intention of shaking her when you get her into a city, not if I know about it and am around. If you sincerely intend to marry her, and will do so to-morrow in my presence, then I'll withdraw. Afterwards I mean, of course."
"Come, Mary. Stand aside, you!"
"She doesn't go with you," the engineer stated.
For a moment the men's eyes locked, those of one full of blue fire and hatred, those of the other quiet as pieces of flint.
"And she shall keep with me while I telephone to your father that you brought her here under promise of marriage, a girl of sixteen, without her own parents' consent, and now refuse to marry her," Steele added.
A sneer twisted the other man's mouth.
"My father happens to be in the east, where he's been for a month," he mocked. "If he were here, he wouldn't believe you; he'd know you were a liar. He knows I'm engaged to marry——" Bite off the words as he tried, they had escaped.
"Ah, that's the way of it!" Weir remarked with a silky smoothness. "You expect to marry some other girl—and have no intention whatever of marrying Mary here."
"To hell with you and your opinions!"
"First, you coax her to Bowenville by a promise, then you persuade her by more promises to go to Los Angeles," the engineer proceeded steadily, "and there you would betray and abandon her to a life on the streets, like the yellow cur you are."
Sorenson snapped his fingers and moved round to the girl's side.
"Pay no attention to him," he addressed her. "He's only a crazy fool."
But she drew back against the wall, staring at him with a strained, searching regard.
"Will you marry me to-morrow as he asks?" she questioned anxiously.
"No. I explained the reason why once. Come on; let's get away from him. Then I'll make everything clear and satisfactory to you."
For a moment she stood wavering, picking at her handkerchief, her face pale and unhappy, questioning his countenance. Finally she turned to look at Steele Weir, standing silently by.
"You never said you were engaged to another girl; you told me I was the only one you loved," she muttered in a choked voice. "But I see now you won't marry me. You wish me to go with you—but not to marry. I'm going away—away anywhere. By myself! Where I'll never see any one!" Burying her face in her hands, she shook with sobs.
"This is what comes from your putting an oar in," said Sorenson, lifting his fist in a burst of fury to strike Weir.
The latter at once smote him across the mouth with open palm at the vile epithet that followed. Sorenson staggered, then lunged forward, tugging at something in his hip-pocket, while the table and dishes went over in a crash.
Before he could draw the weapon Steele's fingers shot forth and seized his wrist; his other hand closed about Sorenson's throat in an iron grasp. Slowly under that powerful grip the younger man's struggles ceased, his eyes dilated, his knees yielded and gave way. The revolver was wrenched from his numbed hold. His eyeballs seemed afire; his breast heaved in violent spasms for the denied breath; and his heart appeared about to burst.
"You miserable skunk!" Weir said, barely moving his mouth. "I ought to choke the life out of you." Then he released his hold. "I'll keep this gun—and use it if you ever try to pull another on me! Now, make tracks. Remember, too, to pay your bill as you go out."
When Sorenson had straightened his coat, giving Weir a malignant look during the process, he departed. His air of disdainful insolence had quite evaporated, but that he considered the action between them only begun was plain, though he spoke not a word. Weir, however, heard him give a quieting explanation to the waiter hovering outside, who had been drawn by the crash of dishes.
"Thought a fight was going on," the aproned dispenser of food said to Steele when he and the girl emerged.
"Just an accident. Nothing broken, I imagine," was the response.
"You couldn't break those dishes with a hammer; they're made for rough work."
"If there's any damage, this may cover it." And Steele tossed the fellow a dollar.
Outside the restaurant he slipped his hand inside Mary Johnson's arm and led her along the street. With him he had brought the old strapped grip.
"Where you taking me?" she asked, in a worried quaver.
"Oh, I'm afraid to go home."
"Are you afraid of your own father and mother? They're the ones to trust first of all."
"But when father—mother is dead—sees the telescope, he'll want to know where I've been. He doesn't know I have it. I told him I might stay with a girl at San Mateo over night, and then sneaked it out."
"The best thing is to tell him all about this occurrence."
"Oh, I can't."
"Then I shall. Leave that part to me."
And though her heart was filled with fresh alarms and fears at the prospect, there seemed nothing else to do. She longed to flee, to hide in some dark hole, to cover her shame from her father and the world, but in the hands of this determined man she felt herself powerless. What he willed, she dumbly did.
Terry Creek flowed out of the mountains four miles north of San Mateo, an insignificant stream entering the Burntwood halfway down to Bowenville. The Johnson ranch house was a mile up the canyon, where the rocky walls expanded into a grassy park of no great area. They reached the girl's home about half-past nine that night.
For two hours Weir remained talking with the father, describing the affair at Bowenville, fending off his first bitter anger at the girl and gradually persuading him to see that Mary had been deceived, lured away on hollow promises and was guiltless of all except failing to take him into her confidence. At last peace was made. Mary wept for a time, and was patted on the head by her rough, bearded father, who exclaimed, "There, there, don't cry. You're safe back again; we'll just forget it."
Outside of the house, however, where he had accompanied Weir to his car, he said with an oath:
"But I'll not forget Ed Sorenson, if I go to hell for it. My little girl!"
"She's half a child yet, that's the worse of his offense," Steele replied, savagely.
"Mary said you choked him."
"Some. Not enough."
"I'll not forget him—or you, Mr. Weir."
Steele mounted into his machine. He thoughtfully studied the rancher's bearded, weather-tanned face, illuminated by the moonlight.
"At present I'd say nothing about this matter to any one. Later on you may be able to use it in squaring accounts," the engineer advised.
"I hope so," was the answer, with a bitter note. "But talking would only hurt Mary, not Ed Sorenson. Whatever the Sorensons do is all right, you know, because they're rich. The daughter of a poor man like me would get all the black end of the gossip; and I can't lift a finger, that's what grinds me, unless I go out and shoot him, then hang for it. For the bank's got a mortgage on my little bunch of stock, and on my ranch here, and Sorenson, of course, is the bank. Gordon and Vorse and a few others are in it too, but he's the bull of the herd. If I opened my mouth about his son, I'd be kicked off of Terry Creek, lock, stock and barrel. That's the way Sorenson keeps all of us poor devils, white and Mexican, eating out of his hand. I've just been poor since I came here a boy; the gang in San Mateo won't let anybody but themselves have a chance. And I reckon old man Sorenson wouldn't care much if his boy had ruined my girl. Cuss him a little, maybe; that would be all. But I won't forget the whelp. Some day my chance will come to play even." "Sure; if one just keeps quiet and waits," Steele agreed. "Well, I must hit the trail. If you want work any time, come over to the dam; we can always use a man with a team." Johnson nodded. "After haying is done, maybe. And remember, I'm much obliged to you for looking after my little girl. I won't forget that, either." He reached up diffidently and shook hands with the engineer. Weir's grip was sympathetic and sincere.
A SECRET CONFERENCE
On a certain afternoon Felipe Martinez, the lean and restless attorney who had acted as the Mexican workmen's mouthpiece, observed through the broad plate-glass window of the San Mateo Cattle Company's office an incident that greatly interested him. For the moment he forgot the resentment kindled by Sorenson's abrupt refusal and brutal words when he asked for the nomination for county attorney. The election was in the autumn; the nomination was equivalent to election; and Felipe considered that he had too long been kept apart from that particular spoil.
Martinez had once had a slight difference with the banker, and now outrageously Sorenson had recalled it. He had stated that Martinez should hold no political office; he gave offices only to men who did exactly as he advised; his exact words were that the Mexican was "tricky and no good." And picking up his hat Sorenson who had that day returned home from the east went out of the bank, leaving Martinez to stare out of the window and meditatively twist a point of his silky black mustache.
It was before the window that there occurred the meeting between Sorenson and the manager of the dam. Martinez perceived the two men glance at each other and pass, but after a step or two both men halted. As if worked by a single wire, they slowly swung about for a second look. The Mexican's nimble brain calculated that they could not have previously met and in consequence their behavior bespoke something out of the ordinary.
The pair stood exactly where they had turned, three or four paces apart, he noted. The Mexican's mind palpitated with a slight thrill of excitement. The manner of each of the men was that of a fighting animal looking over another animal of the same sort: neither uttering a word, nor stirring a finger, nor yielding a particle in his fixed unwinking gaze. Martinez could almost feel the exchanged challenge, the cold antagonism, the hostile curiosity, the matching of wills, the instant hate, between the men.
Though they had not met before, to be sure, nevertheless they were enemies. Was it because of the discharge of the workmen? Then Martinez' mind flashed back to the scene in Vorse's saloon when Gordon had showed such sudden emotion at the engineer's name and his enigmatical reference to some event in the past. That was it! Something which had occurred thirty years ago, probably something crooked. Men committed deeds in those early days that they would now like to forget. He, Martinez, would look into the matter.
Sorenson passed out of sight, and Weir likewise proceeded on his way. Thereupon the lawyer sauntered over to the court house, where presently he became engrossed in a pile of tomes in the register's office. As examining records is a part of a lawyer's regular work, it never excites curiosity or arouses suspicion.
That same evening Martinez perceived Vorse enter Sorenson's office. Vorse, he recalled, had been included in the engineer's threatening remarks to Gordon. Shortly thereafter Gordon himself ambled along the street and passed through the door. Last of all, Burkhardt, a short, fleshy, bearded man, went into the building. The vultures of San Mateo, as he secretly called them, had flocked together for conference. Presently Martinez strolled by the office, outwardly displaying no interest in the structure but furtively seeking to catch a glimpse of the interior through a crack of the drawn shade. But in this he was unsuccessful.
Of one thing he was certain, however. His prolonged examination of the county records had revealed an old bill of sale of a ranch and several herds of cattle from one Joseph Weir to Sorenson, Vorse, Gordon and Burkhardt. He had placed his finger on the link connecting the engineer with these men, the entire four, as this old bill of sale thus recorded showed the intimate though unexpressed partnership of the men, which was common knowledge over the country; and intuition told him also that this private assembly of the quartette quickly on Sorenson's return home had its inspiration in the new manager of the dam.
Martinez determined to continue his investigations. Events might yet prove that it would have been much better for the cattleman to have given him the political nomination. Truly, it was possible. In any case, it would do no harm to have "something on" Sorenson and the others, these rulers of San Mateo. And there was the opposite side of the affair—Weir's side; so it looked as if there might be profit either way.
* * * * *
The four men sitting in the railed-off space in the San Mateo Cattle Company's office constituted the cattle company. Moreover, they comprised the financial, political and general power of this remote section of New Mexico. In face, manner, garb, they were dissimilar. Vorse, clothed in gray, was hawk-nosed and impassive; and though now, like his companions, wealthy beyond simple needs he nevertheless continued the operation of his saloon that had been a landmark in San Mateo for forty years. Burkhardt was rough-featured, rough-tongued, choleric, and coatless: typically the burly, uncurried, uncouth stock man, whose commonest words were oaths or curses and whose way with obstinate cattle or men was the way of the club or the fist. Gordon was the wily, cautious, unscrupulous politician; he had represented San Mateo in the legislature for years, both during the Territorial period and since New Mexico had become a state, and was not unknown in other parts of the southwest; but he was "Judge" only by courtesy, the title most frequently given him, never having been admitted to the bar or having practiced, and engaged himself ostensibly in the insurance and real estate business. Like the others, his share of the large cattle, sheep and land holdings of the group made him independent. Sorenson, the last of the four and in reality the leader because of a greater breadth of vision and a natural capacity for business, was dressed in a tailored suit of greenish plaid—a man with bushy eyebrows, a long fleshy nose, predatory eyes, a heavy cat-fish mouth and a great, barrel-like body that reared two or three inches over six feet when he stood on his feet. But one thing they had in common, in addition to the gray hair of age, and that was a joint liability for the past. For years they had believed that liability extinguished through the operation of time. They had considered as closed and sealed the account of early secret, lawless acts by which they had acquired wealth and a grip on the community. They were now law-observing members of society; they controlled even if they sometimes failed to possess the goodwill of the county—and they were not men to measure position by friendships; their councils determined how much or how little other men should own and in local politics their fingers moved the puppets that served their will.
With the entrance here of the powerful group of financiers who were constructing the irrigation project they recognized the threat to their old-time supremacy. Cattle and sheep interests would succumb to farming; a swarm of new, independent settlers would arrive like locusts; and their leadership would eventually be challenged if not ended. New towns would spring up. New money would flow in to dispute their financial mastery. New leaders would arise to assail their political dominion. And against the prospect of all this they had initiated a secret warfare, endeavoring by stealth to ruin the irrigation company at the beginning and nip the danger in the bud.
Now it had been revealed all at once that they had not only a general and impersonal enemy in the form of the company, but a specific one in the form of a man, its manager. Out of nowhere he had emerged, out of thirty years' silence, a sinister figure who tapped with significant finger the book of their secret past while his eyes steadfastly demanded a reckoning. Did he know all, or nothing? Knowing, did he deliberately leave them in doubt in order to shatter their confidence?
At least one of the four had been badly shaken on learning Weir's identity, and all now were uneasy. It was as if Fate after a long silence was about to open the sealed record.
"Perhaps you were just imagining things, Judge," Sorenson was saying.
Senator Gordon moistened his lips and tugged nervously at his gray mustache.
"No, no," he exclaimed. "Just ask Vorse. The man said his name was Weir and that he was the son of Joe Weir. Then—then——"
"Well?" Sorenson demanded, frowning at the other's visible trepidation.
"Weir added, 'And I know what happened thirty years ago in this selfsame room.' Those were his very words. Isn't that true, Vorse?"
"They could mean only one thing," said Gordon.
"When the Judge went out he said to me," Vorse stated, "'That was for you too.' I had my hand on my gun under the counter as he said it, ready if he made a move. He knew what I had there, but it didn't faze him. He's a better man than Joe Weir ever was, I want to remark, and different; he has nerve and a bad eye. He knows something, lay your bets on that."
"How much? How much? If we only knew how much!" Judge Gordon vouchsafed, testily.
"How would he know anything? Joe Weir didn't know, so how can this fellow know? Don't get scared at a shadow." It was the bearded, rough-tongued Burkhardt who spoke, concluding his words with a blasphemous oath.
"There's the Mexican who saw what happened—and that boy who looked in at the back door," Gordon asserted. "We just caught sight of him and couldn't make out his face against the light. Then he had skipped when we ran there. We never did learn who he was."
"Do you think he remembers?" Sorenson said, scornfully. "He may be dead. He may be on the other side of the world. Just some kid who happened to drift by at the minute and look in, and there's not one chance in a million he's anywhere around these parts yet. He would have blabbed long ago to some one if he had been; don't figure him in, he's lost."
"Saurez isn't, though."
At this Vorse put in a word.
"He saw more than one killing in those days when he was roustabout for me. It was only one more to him. Probably he has forgotten it. Anyway," Vorse ended with deadly emphasis, "he knows what would happen to him even now if he remembered it and talked. Leave him out of the calculation too."
"Then that just makes the four of us," said Burkhardt. "Nobody else. So this fellow Weir doesn't know a thing."
"But we can't be absolutely sure," Judge Gordon replied.
"Well, he'd need proof, wouldn't he?"
"Certainly, to bring legal action. But how do we know he hasn't even that? Look all around the question as a lawyer does; let us assume the millionth chance, for instance. Suppose that he somewhere met and became acquainted with that boy. Suppose that he learned the latter had been here at the time and saw the shooting; and heard his story. Suppose that Weir knows this instant where he is and can produce him as a witness in court."
"I reckon in this county his testimony wouldn't count for much," Burkhardt, who had been sheriff, stated, with a harsh laugh.
Sorenson, however, was impressed by the Judge's reasoning, for he drummed with fingers on the desk and sat in brooding silence. So likewise sat Vorse, who had heard Weir's utterance and beheld his face.
"He knows something," he repeated, in a convinced tone. "Or he's a damned good bluffer."
"I passed him here at the door this afternoon," the banker remarked. "I turned to look at him, guessing who he was, and he had stopped and was looking at me. Cool about it too. We'll have to watch him."
"Perhaps if we just tip him off to keep his mouth shut tight, that will be enough," Burkhardt suggested. "If he knows the four of us are ready——"
"You think he can be bluffed?" he said. "You haven't seen him yet; go take a look. We'll not throw any scare into him. If he were that kind, he wouldn't have told us who he is. He wanted us to know he's after us, that's my opinion. He wants to shake our nerve—and he shook the Judge's all right that day at my bar."
"He did," Gordon admitted. "The thing was so infernally unexpected. Almost like Joe Weir himself appearing. I didn't sleep a wink that night, what with my heart being bad and what with seeing him."
"Suppose he has proofs?" Vorse asked after a pause, while his narrowed eyes moved from one to another of his companions.
A considerable silence followed. The question jerked into full light the issue that had all the while been lurking in the recesses of their minds—an issue full of ghastly possibilities. Judge Gordon's fingers trembled as he wiped with handkerchief the cold sweat on his brow.
"We're all in it," Vorse added.
Burkhardt brought his fist down on the desk with a sudden crash.
"If he has proofs, then it's him or us," he exclaimed, while the blood suffused his face. "Him or us—and that means him! I'll never go behind bars!"
"Sure not. None of us," Vorse said.
"It will mean——" Judge Gordon began in an agitated voice, but did not finish.
Sorenson gave a nod of his head. His bear-trap mouth was compressed in a determined evil line.
"Exactly. He'll never use his proofs. We're in too far to halt now if matters come to the point of his trying to use them. He has a grip on us in one way; he knows we can't declare his father, Joe Weir, did the killing; that would make us—what do you call it, Judge?"
"Accomplices after the fact. Besides, it would then come out that we had taken over and shared among us his stuff, fifty thousand apiece. It's a deplorable situation we're in, gentlemen, deplorable. If we were but able to start the story Joe Weir believed and fled because of, it would cut the ground out from under this man's feet at once."
"It's him we'll cut, not the ground under him," Burkhardt growled, thrusting his hairy chin forward towards the lawyer. "And cut his damned throat."
"I hate to think of our being forced to—to homicide. Even justifiable homicide."
"Homicide nothing! It's just killing a rattlesnake waiting in the brush to strike. That's the way we used to do in the old days, and if he's going to bring them back that's what we'll do again."
Sorenson smiled grimly.
"We'll wait till we're sure he has the proofs, then——"
"Then we'll act quick and sure," Vorse shot out.
"And quietly," the cattleman added. "We'll take no more chances this time. It will be arranged carefully beforehand; all four of us will be in it, of course,—equal responsibility; and there'll be no witnesses."
Judge Gordon's face wore a pallid, sickish look.
"I hope to God there's some other way out of it," he muttered.
"So do all of us," Burkhardt snarled. "But if there isn't, it means guns. For you, too, along with the rest of us."
Sorenson leaned forward and gazed from under his heavy brows, compelling Gordon to meet his fixed look.
"You were keen enough at the time for your share of Joe Weir's stuff," he said. "So you'll play the hand out to the end now, the bad cards as well as the good. You're no better than the rest of us, and it was you who hatched the scheme for cleaning him up and who put over the story."
"I know, I know. But—but this would be too much like cold-blooded murder."
"Murder!" Sorenson grated. "Did you look straight into this fellow Weir's eyes? Didn't you see something there that resembled murder? He'd like only the chance to kill us one by one with his own hands: I saw that much. Just as Burkhardt said, it's him or us. After you told me about him, I had only to take one look. If he has the goods on us—well, he'll have to die. Make up your mind to that. We're back to the time of thirty years ago and fighting for our lives. We were not only all in on the Weir job, but the Dent killing—all of us. Remember that. If the facts become known, we'll be run into some other county and court and hanged. And every enemy we've made in these years past will put up his head and clamor for our blood. Let that sink into your mind."
The effect of this low fierce utterance was to hammer the truth home. The Judge was ashen. Vorse's face appeared like an evil mask. Burkhardt glowered savagely.
At that instant there sounded the faint report of a shot in the street. Then as the group sat unmoving, rigid, keyed to the highest pitch of expectancy, there followed quickly two more shots. Afterwards, silence.
"A gun-play!" issued from Vorse's lips, softly.
They all sprang up to hasten to the door.
A SHOT IN THE DARK
Steele Weir driving his car down the street in the dusk had caught sight of Felipe Martinez standing near the cattle company's office. He stopped close by, beckoned. Martinez would do as well as another.
"You're a notary, I suppose?" he questioned.
"Yes, Mr. Weir. Most of us lawyers here are," he replied politely, when he had advanced.
"I've some papers I want acknowledged to-night. Must get them into the mail going down to Bowenville in the morning."
"Only too pleased to facilitate your business, Mr. Weir. My office is down a few doors."
"It's but a few steps."
"Then I'll get out here." And the engineer stopped the engine and descended to the ground.
Along the street open doorways and windows were already beginning to make yellow panels of lamplight in the thin gloom. The air was still warm, balmy, scented by the lingering aroma of the greasewood smoke of supper fires in Mexican ovens. Stars were jeweling the sky. Few persons moved in the twilight.
One of these was a man who, standing at the door of a native saloon across the street and a little farther up, had come diagonally over towards the bank on seeing the engineer halt his car. He walked with a slouching haste seldom exhibited by a Mexican and gained the spot as Weir stepped out. There he slackened his pace while he scanned the American with an intense, slow gaze that the engineer, chancing to raise his eyes, squarely met.
The Mexicans always looked at him and fell silent when he passed since he had shown who was master at the dam. In the eyes of some was merely stupid curiosity, in some a shrinking, and in many a half-veiled hostility. That did not trouble Weir. In Mexico he had dealt with recalcitrant workmen of more lawless nature than these. He usually ignored them altogether now as they no longer were in his employ. But this man seized his attention.
It was not yet too dark to mark his face as he lounged past, slowly turning his head about as he progressed until his chin was on his shoulder, staring back. His look the while remained riveted on Weir—a steady, contemplative, evil regard. In Chihuahua the engineer had once seen a notorious local "killer" who had that same gaze.
Martinez had also glanced at the fellow.
"Who is that man? One of the discharged workmen?" Weir asked him, when moving forward they in turn had passed the Mexican.
"No, I imagine not. At any rate, he doesn't belong in San Mateo or anywhere hereabouts. I know everybody for fifty miles, for I've been active in social and political affairs. He's unknown to me. A stranger." Then a little farther along: "Here is my office, Mr. Weir. I'll have a light in an instant. Ah, now. Be so good as to have a chair and we'll expedite your business."
As Martinez filled out the acknowledgment blanks on the papers, his eyes furtively skipped over the vital portions of the documents. The latter were connected with company business. He had hoped they would be personal so that he might learn something more of this manager's affairs, possibly more of his secret antagonism for Sorenson and his friends. Any intrigue appealed to the thin, slippery lawyer's soul, but most of all some one's else intrigue into which he might profitably put a finger. However, from these papers he was to learn nothing.
He had considered all possibilities of the affair, all possible solutions of what long ago might have occurred between Joseph Weir, undoubtedly the father of the man sitting across the table from him, and the four men now conferring in Sorenson's office. This was no petty squabble, he divined. There was something going on under the surface that was big—big! And very dangerous too, for the spirit of that moment in Vorse's bar was not to be mistaken; it had been tense, electric. Utmost caution on Martinez's part would therefore be necessary.
As between the two parties, his sympathies at present inclined towards Weir. The refusal on the latter's part to reemploy the Mexican workmen on their own terms was purely a matter of policy, and the lawyer's first gusty anger had long been forgotten. But not so Sorenson's sneering words of that afternoon. They struck to the heart of his vanity, breeding an animosity that would last. Had not the banker stated that the lawyer should hold no political office whatever? After all his services? Had he not definitely shown that Martinez might never expect anything there? Well, the lawyer wasn't one tamely to yield his rights; he did not propose always to remain a scrimping, pettifogging attorney, existing on crumbs.
When with a flourish he had appended his name to the acknowledgments and affixed his seal, he sat back thoughtfully studying the engineer, who was carefully examining the paragraphs for errors. He knew his business, did Martinez; the man would find no mistakes. Then the lawyer's eyes suddenly glistened. He arose and closed the door as Weir thrust the documents into a stout linen envelope, addressed and stamped.
"I'll be pleased to see your letter goes in the mail in the morning," he said, returning to his place. "The stage leaves at eight-thirty."
"Post-office is closed now, I suppose. Very well. It will be an accommodation," the engineer responded.
Martinez leaned forward.
"If you can spare the time, I should like to have a little talk with you," said he. "Pardon me if I appear presumptuous, but as you're aware, Mr. Weir, I overheard your words to Judge Gordon in Vorse's saloon. I inferred—check me at any instant if you consider this none of my business!—that there exists some unpleasant feeling between you two gentlemen and possibly others. Judge Gordon has always handled the company's business in his private capacity of counselor. As you know, he's a silent partner in many enterprises with Sorenson, Vorse and a man named Burkhardt. They run this town and county. You should also know that they're secretly opposed to your irrigation project, whatever they profess. They've misled the people into believing it will work an injury to this district, whereas it will of course be beneficial. Unfortunately too they lead the people by the noses—but not me! I refuse to be subservient."
He paused to note the effect of his words.
"Now, Mr. Weir, these are facts you can confirm if you're not already informed of them, which I imagine you are. Because I'm independent in my opinions and actions, I stand in disfavor with these gentlemen, which may or may not be an objection in your view to what I have in mind. And this is it. I should be pleased to execute any legal work that you care to give me; it might be of advantage to your company at times to have an attorney other than Judge Gordon, who is aligned against you and will serve his own interests first. He's in a position to cause you embarrassment."
"Our eastern attorneys draw all documents."
"Of course. But I was thinking of delays more than anything else. There are a thousand ways a lawyer can push or halt matters at will, and your project will never be free of legal red tape until completed—if then! I'm not unselfish in this, I admit; the business would be valuable to me. But aside from that, I'll give you this advice anyway:—secure another lawyer in any case, one without antagonistic personal interests, if you can find another in San Mateo besides me. See, I'm frank! That may sound egotistical, but really I'm the only free man of the lawyers here. And I've paid for my liberty!" He made a sweeping gesture to indicate his shabby office. "If I had taken orders, I could have been county attorney and probably a judge. But I respect myself too much to take orders from Sorenson and his bunch. I choose this sort of thing in preference."
Steele Weir maintained a non-committal silence. Again the thin dark-skinned lawyer swiftly weighed the man before him, considered the dangers in which he might become involved if he went a step farther, recoiled, then grew bolder. Sorenson had marked him for poverty and nonentity; under the favoring shelter of the irrigation company's power he might arise from both. For at moments the acute Mexican sensed the inevitable victory of the new forces at work; this, one of the last strong-holds of old time cattle and sheep interests, would break down and yield to the plow and fence.
"Now, there's something more, though I hesitate to mention it," he went on, doubtfully. "While Sorenson and his crowd run things, it's not because the people—and that means us Mexicans chiefly—love them. We're indolent by nature; we idle rather than work; borrow when we can rather than earn—I speak of our race, but we're learning that work proves best in the long run. These men have squeezed my people, and robbed them, and kept them down. Nothing more would I wish than to see these leaders deposed. It's no secret they've built their wealth by questionable methods, but who can prove it?
"Do you know what I suspect? You have something on Sorenson's crowd. That's why they're uneasy; that's why the four are sitting over in the cattle company's office this minute with their heads together, meeting the minute Sorenson arrives home. I saw them go in. Leaving aside the question of your own affairs, I'd like to have matters changed here in this county so that every man has a fair chance. Anything that will bring that about enlists my interest. When I heard your statement to Gordon and saw his face, I knew there was something in the past that alarmed him. I recalled a name I had once run across when abstracting a title——"
It was not this ingenious twisting of the truth that caused the lawyer to become filled with sudden dismay and stop, but the savage hardening of the engineer's face.
"Go on," Weir commanded.
"Well, the name was Joseph Weir. I looked it up again to be sure, and found the property had been deeded to Sorenson and the others, who still have it. I wondered——"
"What did you wonder?" came with a devouring look.
"If—if Joseph Weir received consideration according to law." Martinez' courage flowed back again. "I'll make no attempt to justify my curiosity, sir, except to say that more than one man in the southwest was done out of property in early days; and the practice has not ceased, for that matter. But in these days the means is usually legal and Mexicans the victims. Sharp mortgage dealings and so forth. Now, if I've said too much, I'll instantly forget all about it. On the other hand——"
"I might be of assistance. If you wish to look into that old transaction, that is. If there was anything crooked about the deal, and I set it down that there was with Sorenson mixed in, and with Vorse and Burkhardt the witnesses named in the deed and Judge Gordon taking the acknowledgment of Joseph Weir's signature, as the record shows, then there should be some weak spot that could be attacked. There may be men yet alive conversant with the circumstances; they may know whether duress or fraud was exercised, supposing the sale was not honest. Some of the old Mexicans may remember Weir, and could give a clue; they have good memories for things of those days. Of course, if the transaction was all right, then I'm all wrong in my suppositions."
"I can give you some of the company business, perhaps considerable of it," he said.
Martinez sprang up, an expression of gratitude upon his face. He had not realized all that he had hoped for, but he was nevertheless delighted.
"I'm really sincere when I give you a thousand thanks, Mr. Weir," said he, spreading his arms wide. "I'll not make promises as to the efficiency of my services; let results speak for themselves."
"I always do," was the comment. "But I'll tell you what I demand in any one associated with me—absolute trustworthiness first of all, then loyalty and ability."
"Which leaves nothing," Martinez smiled.
He preceded the engineer and swung the door open, stepping aside. To the visitor's question regarding fees for the acknowledgments taken, he waved a declining hand.
"Nothing, nothing. Delighted to render you the service."
"I'll attend to the letter," the lawyer again assured him.
"Come out to the dam in a day or two."
"To-morrow, if you wish."
"To-morrow afternoon will do."
Steele Weir's frame filled the lighted doorway as he stepped forth from the office. He paused to accustom his eyes to the darkness, for during his colloquy with the attorney full night had descended. On the same side of the street with himself and perhaps twelve or fifteen paces off he saw a girl's figure appear and disappear before a window as she moved along.
Then suddenly a tongue of red flame darted at him across the street, where lay a space of unlighted gloom. His hat was whipped off his head. The sharp report of a shot cracked between the adobe walls. With an unbelievably rapid movement Steele Weir drew the revolver in his pocket, and which he had carried ever since his encounter with young Sorenson in the restaurant, fired twice where he had seen the flame and leaped aside into the darkness beside the doorway. There he waited, half crouching, for a further attack.
But none came. Men began to run towards the place. Shouts and calls echoed along the street. In two minutes a crowd was surging before Martinez' door wildly asking questions.
Weir pocketed his pistol and walked back into the office, where he found his bullet-pierced hat lying on the floor and the attorney standing frozen with astonishment. A stream of people followed at his heels.
"Who did this shooting? Do you know, Felipe?" a tall raw-boned white man who led them asked hastily.
"This gentleman, Mr. Weir, was fired on, sheriff," Martinez burst out volubly.
"And I fired in return," the engineer stated. "The fellow was across the street in the dark. You might look over there."
Turning and pushing his way through the packed door, the sheriff disappeared. The crowd melted away again. Presently as Weir glanced about he saw a new figure at the doorway, staring at him. He went towards the girl there outlined in the lamplight.
"Was that you I saw moving along just before the exchange of compliments, Miss Hosmer?" he asked.
"Yes. I was coming towards you on my way home."
"It probably gave you a fright."
"It did, indeed. I heard the shot and saw your hat knocked off. I just went cold in my tracks. At first I believed you killed."
"I'm very much alive, as you see."
"But it was dreadful! Who would fire at you from the dark? Some one tried to murder you!"
"It looks like it. Still here I am, ready to move your car out of the water next time it's stalled."
She entered the room slowly.
"Who in San Mateo would do such a terrible thing, Mr. Martinez?" she addressed the lawyer. The pallor was still on her face and her eyes were large with horror.
"Ah, Miss Janet, if we but knew! We'd lay hands on him and send him to the penitentiary."
Real emotion struggled in the lawyer's words. With the return of his senses he had just begun to realize by what a narrow margin the assassin's bullet had missed destroying his future client and prospects.
A growing murmur across the street attracted their attention. Then as they continued to chat of the event, the sheriff reappeared, directing half a dozen men who laid a burden in the light of Martinez' doorway.
"You got him," he said to Weir, with ominous significance. "One bullet through the head, one through his stomach. He's good and dead."
Weir walked forward and inspected that outstretched figure. It was the man whose gaze had been so malevolently fastened upon him as he joined Martinez before Sorenson's office.
"Who is he?" he asked.
"A strange Mexican. Some of these men say he showed up this morning and hung around the saloons, not talking much. Haven't you ever seen him, before?" The question expressed a perplexed curiosity.
"Once. When Martinez and I were coming here to transact some business. He was taking a good look at me then when he passed us. That wasn't over half an hour ago. Never saw him before that."
"He shot at you first?"
"I had just stepped out of this room. Could I see him hiding over there? Or know he was there?" Then he added, "I was taken by surprise, but I marked the flash of his gun."
The sheriff, Madden by name, looked at Weir appreciatively.
"You can use a gun yourself," said he, briefly.
Martinez now repeated the fact of the dead man having fired the first shot, which Janet Hosmer confirmed.
"Well, is there anything more?" Weir questioned.
"Not to-night, I reckon," Madden replied. "We'll have an inquest in the morning; show up then. Where will I find your father, Miss Hosmer?"
"At home." Then to the engineer she explained, "Father acts in the absence of the coroner, who's away just now."
"I'm very sorry this happened on your account," said he.
"And I'm very glad you were not hurt."
Outside the corpse was being borne away, followed by the curious, avid crowd of Mexicans.
"You're still shaken by the thing," said Steele Weir. "It's enough to upset any girl. Let me walk home with you, or you may be starting at shadows all the way."
A silvery brightness shone in the east as they came out of Martinez' office, that increased as they went forward until all at once the moon arose into view, lighting the street, disclosing the flanking lines of squat buildings, revealing the tall cottonwoods about the court house and elsewhere thrust up in the town.
Janet Hosmer breathed a sigh of relief. The darkness had seemed potent for further evil, but now it was as if the latter retreated with the shadows. She felt a desire to go on alone, to separate herself from this companion with whom chance had brought her in contact at a dramatic moment, to get away from the whole terrible affair. Involuntarily her spirit shrank at the nearness of the man, for though he had struck back in self-defense he nevertheless had killed another and the act somehow appeared to set him apart from ordinary men, isolate him, give him the character of an Ishmael.
Yet her feelings were confused. Against this inclination was an avid curiosity, or rather a wonderment, as to what must now be occurring in his soul. Her eyes sought his face as he walked beside her. Neither had spoken; and his countenance wore the same stern contained aspect, calm, forceful, as the first time she had ever observed it. But what was below the surface? What were the thoughts now revolving in his mind and the emotions flowing in his breast? She could read nothing on that composed mask of a face. Was it possible for a man to slay another human being, even justifiably, without suffering a hurricane of the spirit?
But perhaps he had killed men before. The fact of his carrying a weapon and his swift deadly fire pointed ominously to previous experience.
"Did you ever shoot any one before?" popped from between her lips. Then she stopped, clapping her hand over her mouth in consternation and staring at him palely.
Weir had halted too. He regarded her in silence for a little, a slight smile resting on his face. They stood before the cattle company's office and his look went past her once to embrace the small darkened building.
"I'm not a murderer by trade, if that's what you mean," said he, at last. "But I've killed a man or two before, yes." Then at the white anguish of her lips and cheeks, his tone softened a degree as he went on. "Unfortunately since becoming of age I've had to fight. If not men, then the earth. If not the earth, then men. Sometimes both together. You saw what happened to-night; that fellow was unknown to me. He was not a workman who had been discharged and felt he had a grievance——"
"Oh, no!" she interjected. "The Mexicans here wouldn't attempt to murder you, however angry they might feel."
"I'm not so sure of that," he answered.
"But I am; I know them, I've lived among them!"
"Well, let that go. The man tried to kill me, at any rate. However, he was merely a tool, hired for the business by some one else. Ordinarily I don't discuss my affairs with any one, but since you've raised the matter I'll just say that I've enemies in San Mateo who are anxious to dispose of me."
"Such enemies here!"
"Yes. Who would be delighted to see me lie where that dead man lies and who are apparently determined to effect it." He touched her sleeve warningly. "But you will speak of this to no one."
"No, oh, no! Not a word!"
Steele gazed at her steadily. He already repented disclosing even so little of his private concerns, an impulse altogether at variance with his close-mouthed habit, but he had, for some vague reason, felt it necessary to explain his course, to justify himself to this clear-eyed, fine-spirited girl. He could not let her rest under a misapprehension that he was a brute who reveled in blood-spilling. And as he regarded her a conviction that she was absolutely to be trusted settled firmly into his mind.
She would be staunch; oxen and ropes could not drag information from her once she had determined not to speak. Yes, she would be loyal to her given word—and to her friends. Weir's eyes glanced at the diamond on her finger. It would be a girl like her with whom he would have chosen to mate if fate had not directed his feet on a road which seemingly left him no choice but incessant and solitary struggle.
"I hate it all; I have nothing but crusts and nettles!" he exclaimed, with sudden fierce passion. And with a quick movement of his hand he beckoned her on.
Submissively she accompanied him, her bosom rising and falling with a quickened rhythm. Too much had happened, one thing piling on another, for her to sort her thoughts or to attempt to understand things yet; and in her tossing state of mind she went at his gesture as one follows a guide, or as a simple matter of course.
In her mental turmoil that last passionate utterance of the man played like a lambent flame. Tense, violent, spontaneous, it had come from the heart. What harsh lot he had lived and sufferings borne she could not even guess; but no man spoke with such unconscious bitterness who had not undergone pain and travail of spirit. His head was now turned a little towards her as they walked: she perceived him staring at the moonlit street, his lips compressed, his brows knit.
Then he glanced about at her, his face clearing. "Pay no attention to what I said," he remarked. "I shouldn't have let loose that way. Hello, what's on now?"
Before them, and in front of the court house, was a packed crowd, people who had run forth at the sound of shots, augmented by those who had since arrived upon the scene. It was motionless.
"Stand back, stand back; don't trample the body!" came Sheriff Madden's voice in an angry order.
The crowd surged a little apart in the center.
"How do you know this dead man fired the first shot?" asked some one, vehemently.
The voices went lower so that Steele Weir and Janet Hosmer, who had paused at the edge of the throng, were able only to catch the tones.
"Who was that who questioned the sheriff?" Weir whispered.
"Mr. Burkhardt, I think. Sounded like him."
So intent were the Mexicans upon the occurrence in their midst that those close by remained with backs towards the pair, failing to notice their presence. All craned eagerly to miss nothing of the controversy.
"How do you know this engineer didn't start it?" came Burkhardt's voice again.
"Don't be a fool; there were witnesses."
"I'd like to talk to those witnesses. I doubt if they really saw anything. It looks to me as if there's another side to this shooting."
"Well, of course you know—you, sitting there in Sorenson's office, as you say," was the ironical retort.
At this juncture another voice interposed.
"Madden, we want no mistake here. This Weir doesn't bear a very good reputation for peacefulness, from what I've learned. If this Mexican has simply been shot down——"
"Who is that?" Steele demanded of the girl. "I can't see him."
"That"—Janet Hosmer's speech faltered—"that is Mr. Sorenson. Oh, they misunderstand! Let me push in there and tell them how it happened."
The engineer's hand closed about her arm.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," he commanded, low.
"No. Remain quiet and listen."
Her eyes flew up to his at this extraordinary course, so injurious to his own interests. She was anxious to press to the front and declare his innocence in the affair of everything but defending his life from an assassin. She could not understand why he also was not eager to spring forward, why he restrained her. Then she saw the implacable hatred on his face.
A thrill quivered through her body. The feeling she had at that instant was one of being on the point of seeing behind the curtain of a mystery, of making a discovery so sinister that she would gasp. Her very finger almost rested upon it. Why were Mr. Sorenson and Mr. Burkhardt talking as they were? Trying by innuendo to make it seem her companion might have been guilty of a crime? Could it be—— Her blood slowly congealed to ice at the horror of where her reasoning led.
Could it be they were the enemies he meant!
Such a thing was too dreadful, too absurd. They, the respected leaders of the community, could never put a pistol in the dead wretch's hand to slay this man beside her. Mr. Sorenson! The father of Ed, whom—— She stared blankly at her left hand.
Yet the banker's heavy, smooth words continued to assail her ears steadily. She grasped their import once more.
"—for the story is too thin. No man could hit another across the street in the dark as this engineer claims, not only once but twice put a bullet where it would kill. Probably the dead man had something on this Weir, and the latter knew it. It's not impossible he found the fellow in his path, drew and murdered him at once, quickly put a hole in his own hat and then carried the body across the way, running back to Martinez' office. The thing could have been done in a minute. Martinez' himself wouldn't have seen how it was worked. I'm not saying that was exactly how it was done, or that this Weir did actually murder him, but—investigate, Madden, investigate."
Steele Weir felt an angry tug at his sleeve. He looked around and beheld Janet Hosmer's eyes distended with incredulity.
"Come away, come away," she whispered. "I should never have believed it if I hadn't heard with my own ears!"
Keeping close to the line of buildings, they skirted the crowd, still unnoticed, and left it behind. She walked with quick nervous steps; her hand yet unconsciously grasped his coat sleeve. All the way to her home, which they found dark since a messenger had called the doctor to the court house and the Mexican girl servant also was gone, she said nothing.
"Come up on the veranda; I want to talk," she announced when he opened the gate.
"Wouldn't it be best if you took your mind off the whole thing, by a book or something else? I'll go."
"As if I could take my mind off! There are matters in this I must know. You may wonder when I say it, Mr. Weir, but this happening concerns me more than you dream." Her dark glowing gaze brooded on him with a sort of intense determination. Then she went on, "It—it involves my whole future as well as your own, though in a different way. So come inside, if you please."
Weir in silence accompanied her upon the dark, broad, vine-clad porch. In the half-gloom he found chairs for them.
"I'm going to the point at once," she declared. "Why did Mr. Sorenson talk in such a fashion?" And he could feel her bending forward as if hanging on his answer.
"That's the one thing I can't discuss," said he.
"I must know, I must know."
"And unhappily I must refuse."
"Oh, Mr. Weir, if you could but understand what this involves for me, you wouldn't hesitate! I was shocked at the shooting, but I saw its necessity on your part; you're not one to run from a foe, a cowardly foe least of all. But what I heard there in the street horrified me. I couldn't believe it; I can scarcely credit my ears yet. Mr. Sorenson and Mr. Burkhardt were not near when you were attacked; they are not acquainted with the circumstances or facts as you, Mr. Martinez and I know them; they apparently didn't appear until the crowd started away with the dead man. Yet at once——"
"Ay, at once," Steele Weir let slip.
"At once, immediately, when they had barely heard the story, they began to tear it to pieces and suggest another, making you out a villain. You're only an acquaintance, sir, scarcely more than a stranger, but as I listened it outraged all my sense of justice. Mr. Sorenson, of all men! My brain was in a whirl. But it's steady now."
The engineer failed to open his lips at her pause.
"I'm no fool, Mr. Weir; I think of other things besides dressing my hair and using a powder puff. I can sometimes put two and two together—when I see the 'twos' clearly. Now, tell me why Mr. Sorenson talked as he did, for I must have my eyes clear."
"Ask me anything but that, Miss Hosmer."
He sat distressed and uneasy at her prolonged muteness. Suddenly she questioned quietly:
"Are those two men the enemies you spoke of?"
"It will save me embarrassment if I go," he remarked, starting to rise. "I don't want you to hate me, you know, and still I can't say anything."
Her grasp pulled him imperatively back.
"You shall not go yet."
"Then I can only continue to decline making answers. I frankly say that I regret having uttered a word of explanation."
"I don't regret it. And I intend to keep questioning you, however rude you may think me. I must know," she cried impetuously, "and I shall know! Mr. Sorenson is one of the men you referred to, or he would never seek to direct suspicion at you. I saw the look on your face, sir, as he spoke. But why should you two be enemies! You come here a stranger to San Mateo, or have you been here before sometime? Did you know him before?"