HotFreeBooks.com
Laramie Holds the Range
by Frank H. Spearman
1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

E-text prepared by Al Haines



LARAMIE HOLDS THE RANGE

by

FRANK H. SPEARMAN

Illustrated by James Reynolds



[Frontispiece: "Hold on, Doubleday," Laramie said bluntly, . . . "You'll hear what I've got to say"]



New York Charles Scribner's Sons 1921

Copyright, 1921, by Charles Scribner's Sons

Published August, 1921 Reprinted September, 1921

Copyright, 1921, by Frank H. Spearman



TO MY SON

FRANK HAMILTON SPEARMAN, JR.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER

I SLEEPY CAT II THE CRAZY WOMAN III DOUBLEDAY'S IV AT THE EATING HOUSE V CROSS PURPOSES VI WHICH WINS? VII THE CLOSE OF THE DAY VIII THE HOME OF LARAMIE IX AT THE BAR X LARAMIE COUNTS FIVE XI A DUEL WITH KATE XII THE BARBECUE XIII AGAINST HIS RECORD XIV LEFEVER ASKS QUESTIONS XV THE RAID OF THE FALLING WALL XVI THE GO-DEVIL XVII VAN HORN TRAILS HAWK XVIII HAWK QUARRELS WITH LARAMIE XIX LEFEVER RECEIVES THE RAIDERS XX THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE XXI THE HIDING PLACE XXII STONE TRIES HIS HAND XXIII KATE RIDES XXIV NIGHT AND A HEADER XXV A GUEST FOR AN HOUR XXVI THE CRAZY WOMAN WINS XXVII KATE DEFIES XXVIII A DIFFICULT RESOLVE XXIX HORSEHEAD PASS XXX THE FUNERAL AND AFTER XXXI AN ENCOUNTER XXXII A MESSAGE FROM TENISON XXXIII THE CANYON OF THE FALLING WALL XXXIV KATE GETS A SHOCK XXXV AT KITCHEN'S BARN XXXVI MCALPIN AT BAY XXXVII KATE BURNS THE STEAK XXXVIII THE UNEXPECTED CALL XXXIX BARB MAKES A SURPRISING ALLIANCE XL BRADLEY RIDES HARD XLI THE FLIGHT OF THE SWALLOWS XLII WARNING XLIII THE LAST CALL XLIV TENISON SERVES BREAKFAST



ILLUSTRATIONS

"Hold on, Doubleday," Laramie said bluntly, . . . "You'll hear what I've got to say" . . . . . . Frontispiece

"And I thought I knew every drop of water in this country"

Knocked forward the next instant in his saddle, Laramie drooped over his pommel

"No," said a man . . . as he pushed forward . . . "He's not going to drink!"



LARAMIE HOLDS THE RANGE

CHAPTER I

SLEEPY CAT

All day the heavy train of sleepers had been climbing the long rise from the river—a monotonous stretch of treeless, short-grass plains reaching from the Missouri to the mountains. And now the train stopped again, almost noiselessly.

Kate, with the impatience of girlish spirits tried by a long and tedious car journey, left her Pullman window and its continuous, one-tone picture, and walking forward was glad to find the vestibule open. The porter, meditating alone, stood below, at the car step, looking ahead; Kate joined him.

The stop had been made at a lonely tank, for water. No human habitation was anywhere in sight. The sun had set. For miles in every direction the seemingly level and open country spread around her. She looked back to the darkening east that she was leaving behind. It suggested nothing of interest beyond the vanishing perspective of a long track tangent. Then to the north, whence blew a cool and gentle wind, but the landscape offered nothing attractive to her eyes; its receding horizon told no new story. Then she looked into the west.

They had told her she should not see the Rockies until morning. But the dying light in the west brought a moving surprise. In the dreamy afterglow of the evening sky there rose, far beyond the dusky plain, the faint but certain outline of distant mountain peaks.

Bathed in a soft unearthly light, like the purple of another world; touched here and there by a fairy gold; silent as dreams, majestic as visions, overwhelming as reality itself, Kate gazed on them with beating heart.

Something clutched at her breath: "Are those the Rocky Mountains?" she suddenly asked, appealing to the stolid porter. She told Belle long afterward, she knew her voice must have quivered.

"Ah'm sure, Ah c'dn't say, Miss. Ah s'pecs dey ah. Dis my first trip out here."

"So it is mine!"

"Mah reg'lar run," continued the porter, insensible to the glories of the distant sky, "is f'm Chicago to Council Bluffs."

A flagman hurried past. Kate courageously pointed: "Are those the Rocky Mountains, please?" He halted only to look at her in astonishment. "Yes'm." But she was bound he should not escape: "How far are they?" she shot after him. He looked back startled: "'Bout a hundred miles," he snapped. Plainly there was no enthusiasm among the train crew over mountains.

When she was forced, reluctant, back into the sleeper, she announced joyfully to her berth neighbors that the Rocky Mountains were in sight. One regarded her stupidly, another coldly. Across the aisle the old lady playing solitaire did not even look up. Kate subsided; but dull apathy could not rob her of that first wonderful vision of the strange, far-off region, perhaps to be her home.

Next day, from the car window it was all mountains—at least, everywhere on the horizon. But the train seemed to thread an illimitable desert—a poor exchange for the boundless plains, Kate thought. But she grew to love the very dust of the desert.

The train was due at Sleepy Cat in the late afternoon. It met with delays and night had fallen when Kate, after giving the porter too much money, left her car, and suitcase in hand struggled, American fashion, up the long, dark platform toward the dimly lighted station. Men and women hastened here and there about her. The changing crews moved briskly to and from the train. There was abundance of activity, but none of it concerned Kate and her comfort. And there was no one, she feared, to meet her.

Reaching the station, she set down her suitcase without a tremor, and though she had never been more alone, she never felt less lonely. The eating-house gong beat violently for supper. A woman dragging a little boy almost fell over Kate's suitcase but did not pause to receive or tender apology. Men looking almost solemn under broad, straight-brimmed hats moved in and out of the station, but none of these saw Kate. Only one man striding past looked at her. He glared. And as he had but one eye, Kate deemed him, from his expression, a woman-hater.

Then a fat man under an immense hat, and wearing a very large ring on one hand, walked with a dapper step out of the telegraph office. He did see Kate. He checked his pace, coughed slightly and changed his course, as if to hold himself open to inquiry. Kate without hesitation turned to him and explained she was for Doubleday's ranch. She asked whether he knew the men from there and whether anyone was down.

John Lefever, for it was he whom she addressed, knew the men but he had seen no one; could he do anything?

"I want very much to get out there tonight," said Kate.

"Jingo," exclaimed Lefever, "not tonight!"

"Tonight," returned Kate, looking out of dark eyes in pink and white appeal, "if I can possibly make it."

Lefever caught up her suitcase and set it down beside the waiting-room door: "Stay right here a minute," he said.

He walked toward the baggage-room and before he reached it, stopped a second large, heavy man, Henry Sawdy. Him he held in confab; Sawdy looking meantime quite unabashed toward the distant Kate. In the light streaming from the station windows her slender and slightly shrinking figure suggested young womanhood and her delicately fashioned features, half-hidden under her hat, pleasingly confirmed his impression of it. Kate, conscious of inspection, could only pretend not to see him. And the sole impression she could snatch in the light and shadow of the redoubtable Sawdy, was narrowed to a pair of sweeping mustaches and a stern-looking hat. Lefever returned, his companion sauntering along after. Kate explained that she had telegraphed.

At that moment an odd-looking man, with a rapid, rolling, right and left gait, ambled by and caught Kate's eye. Instead of the formidable Stetson hat mostly in evidence, this man wore a baseball cap—of the sort usually given away with popular brands of flour—its peak cocked to its own apparent surprise over one ear. The man had sharp eyes and a long nose for news and proved it by halting within earshot of the conversation carried on between Kate and the two men. He looked so queer, Kate wanted to laugh, but she was too far from home to dare. He presently put his head conveniently in between Sawdy and Lefever and offered some news of his own: "There's been a big electric storm in the up country, Sawdy; the telephones are on the bum."

"How's she going to get to Doubleday's tonight, McAlpin?" asked Sawdy abruptly of the newcomer. McAlpin never, under any pressure, answered a question directly. Hence everything had to be explained to him all over again, he looking meantime more or less furtively at Kate. But he found out, despite his seeming stupidity, a lot that it would have taken the big men hours to learn.

"If you don't want to take a rig and driver," announced McAlpin, after all had been canvassed, "there's the stage for the fort; they had to wait for the mail. Bill Bradley is on tonight. I'm thinkin' he'll set y' over from the ford—it's only a matter o' two or three miles."

"Are there any other passengers?" asked Kate doubtfully.

"Belle Shockley for the Reservation," answered McAlpin, promptly, "if—she ain't changed her mind, it bein' so late."

Sawdy put a brusque end to this uncertainty: "She's down there at the Mountain House waitin'—seen her myself not ten minutes ago."

Scurrying away, McAlpin came back in a jiffy with the driver, Bradley. Thin, bent and grizzled though he was, Kate thought she saw under the broad but shabby hat and behind the curtain of scraggly beard and deep wrinkles dependable eyes and felt reassured.

"How far is it to the ranch?" she asked of the queer-looking Bradley.

"Long ways, the way you go, ain't it, Bill?" McAlpin turned to the old driver for confirmation.

"'Bout fourteen mile," answered Bradley, "to the ford."

"What time should I get there?" asked Kate again.

Bradley stood pat.

"What time'll she get there, Bill?" demanded Lefever.

"Twelve o'clock," hazarded Bradley tersely. "Or," he added, "I'll stop when I pass the ranch 'n' tell 'em to send a rig down in the mornin'."

"That would take you out of your way," Kate objected.

"Not a great ways."

A man that would go to this trouble in the middle of the night for someone he had never seen before, Kate deemed safe to trust. "No," she said, "I'll go with you, if I may."

The way in which she spoke, the sweetness and simplicity of her words, moved Sawdy and Lefever, the first a widower and the second a bachelor, and even stirred McAlpin, a married man. But they had no particular effect on Bradley. The blandishments of young womanhood were past his time of day.

With Lefever carrying the suitcase and nearly everybody talking at once, the party walked around to the rear door of the baggage-room.

The stage had been backed up, a hostler in the driver's seat, and the mail and express were being loaded. Sawdy volunteered to save time by fetching Belle Shockley from the hotel, and while McAlpin and Lefever inspected and discussed the horses—for the condition of which McAlpin, as foreman of Kitchen's barn, was responsible—Kate stood, listener and onlooker. Everything was new and interesting. Four horses champed impatiently under the arc-light swinging in the street, and looked quite fit. But the stage itself was a shock to her idea of a Western stage. Instead of the old-fashioned swinging coach body, such as she had wondered at in circus spectacles, she saw a very substantial, shabby-looking democrat wagon with a top, and with side curtains. The curtains were rolled up. But the oddest thing to Kate was that wherever a particle could lodge, the whole stage was covered with a ghostly, grayish-white dust. While the loading went on, Sawdy arrived with the second passenger, Belle Shockley. She had, fortunately for Kate's apprehensions, not changed her mind.

Belle herself was something of an added shock. She wore a long rubber coat, in which the rubber was not in the least disguised. Her hair was frizzed about her face, and a small, brimless hat perched high, almost startled, on her head. She was tall and angular, her features were large and her eyes questioning. Had she had Bradley's beard, she would have passed with Kate for the stage driver. She was formidable, but yet a woman; and she scrutinized the slender whip of a girl before her with feminine suspicion. Nor did she give Kate a chance to break the ice of acquaintance before starting.

Under Lefever's chaperonage and with his gallant help, Kate took her seat where directed, just behind the driver, and her new companion presently got up beside her.

The mail bags disposed of, Bradley climbed into place, gathered his lines, the hostler let go the leads and the stage was off. The horses, restive after their long wait, dashed down the main street of the town, whirling Kate, all eyes and ears, past the glaring saloons and darkened stores to the extreme west end of Sleepy Cat. There, striking northward, the stage headed smartly for the divide.

The night was clear, with the stars burning in the sky. From the rigid silence of the driver and his two passengers, it might have been thought that no one of them ever spoke. To Kate, who as an Eastern girl had never, it might be said, breathed pure air, the clear, high atmosphere of the mountain night was like sparkling wine. Her senses tingled with the strange stimulant.

To Belle, there was no novelty in any of this, and the strain of silence was correspondingly greater. It was she who gave in first:

"You from Medicine Bend?" she asked, as the four horses walked up a long hill.

"Pittsburgh," answered Kate.

"Pittsburgh!" echoed Belle, startled. "Gee! some trip you've had."

Belle, encouraged, then confessed that a cyclone had given her her own first start West. She had been blown two blocks in one and had all of her hair pulled out of her head.

"They said I'd have no chance to get married without any hair," she continued, "so I got a wig—never could find my own hair—and come West for a chance. And they're here; if you're looking for a husband you've come to the right place."

"I haven't the least idea of getting married," protested Kate.

"They'll be after you," declared Belle sententiously.

"Are you married?" ventured Kate.

"Not yet. But they're coming. I'm in no hurry."

She talked freely about her own affairs. She had worked for Doubleday, for whose ranch Kate was bound. Doubleday had had a chain of eating houses on the line, as Belle termed the transcontinental railroad. They had all been taken over except the one where she worked—at Sleepy Cat Junction—and this would be taken soon, Belle thought.

"That's the trouble with Barb Doubleday," she went on. "He's got too many irons in the fire—head over heels in debt. There's no money now-a-days in cattle, anyway. What are you going up to Doubleday's for?"

"He's my father."

"Your father? Well! I never open my mouth without I put my foot in it, anyway."

"I've never seen him," continued Kate.

Belle was all interest. She confided to Kate that she was now on her way, for a visit, to the Reservation where her cousin was teaching in an Indian school, and divided her time for the next hour between getting all she could of Kate's story and telling all of her own.

On Kate's part there was no end of questions to ask, about country and customs and people. When Belle could not answer, she appealed to Bradley, who, if taciturn, was at least patient. Every time the conversation lulled and Kate looked out into the night, it seemed as if they were drawing closer and closer to the stars, the dark desert still spreading in every direction and the black mountain ridges continually receding.



CHAPTER II

THE CRAZY WOMAN

They had traveled a long time it seemed to Kate, and having climbed all the hills in the country, were going down a moderate grade with the hind wheels sputtering unamiably at the brakes, when Belle broke a long silence: "Where are we, Bill?" she demanded, familiarly.

"The Crazy Woman," Bradley answered briefly. Kate did not understand, but by this time she had learned in such circumstances to hold her tongue.

"He means the creek," explained Belle. "It's way down there ahead of us."

Strain her eyes as she would, Kate could see only the blackness of the darkness ahead.

"'N' b' jing!" muttered Bradley, as Kate peered into nothingness, "she's whinin' t'night f'r fair."

Again for an instant Kate did not comprehend. Then the leads were swung sharply by Bradley to the left. The stage rounded what Kate afterward frequently recognized as an overhanging shoulder of rock on the road down to the creek, and a vague, dull roar swept up from below.

Bradley halted the horses, climbed down, and taking the lantern went forward on foot to investigate.

"Must have been a cloudburst in the mountains," remarked Belle, listening; and Kate was to learn that a cloudless sky gives no assurance whatever for the passage of a mountain stream.

The lantern disappeared, to come into sight again farther down the trail, and while both women talked, the faint light swung at intervals in and out of their vision as Bradley reconnoitered. Kate was a little worried, but her companion sat quite unmoved, even when Bradley returned and reported the creek "roarin'."

"That bein' the case," he muttered, "I'm thinkin' the Double-draw bridge has took up its timbers and walked likewise."

The Double-draw bridge! How well Kate was to know that name; but that night it seemed, like everything else, only very queer.

"Bradley," protested Belle, now very much disturbed, "that can't be."

"We'll see," retorted Bradley, gathering his reins and releasing his brake as he spoke to the horses. "I don't guess myself there's much left o' that bridge." Only the expletive he placed before the last word revealed his own genuine annoyance and Kate prudently asked no further questions. Some instinct convinced her she was already a nuisance on the silent Bradley's hands. The ford—off the main road—was where he had purposed setting Kate over, as he expressed it, to the ranch. Double-draw bridge—on the road to the fort and Reservation—was two miles above.

The horses climbed the long hill again and started on the road for the bridge.

"If the Double-draw is out," sighed Belle resignedly, "I reckon we're trapped."

For the first time now they could hear the hoofs of the two teams sinking into and pulling out of mud. It grew deeper as they descended the long grade toward the bridge and clouds obscured the light of the stars.

With the horses stumbling on, the women watched for something to meet either sight or hearing, but there was nothing until they again neared the creek. Then the same vague roar rose on the night and as they rimmed the bench above the creek a faint, ghastly light on the eastern horizon betokened a rising moon. Down the trail they stopped in darkness and Bradley again clambered down from his box with the lantern to investigate.

"'Z fur 'z I c'n see," he reported when he came back, "th' bridge is all right, but mos'ly under water."

"Can we get across?" Belle Shockley asked querulously.

Bradley answered with hesitation: "Why—yes——"

"Oh, good!"

"And no."

"What does that mean?" snapped Belle.

"We can't get across tonight—we might in the mornin'."

Kate kept silence, but Belle was persistent. "What are we going to do?" she demanded; "go 'way back to Sleepy Cat?"

"Not in a milyun years," returned Bradley, calmly. "We're goin' to pull out t' one side 'n' camp right here till daylight. Ef I didn't have you wimmen on my hands, I might take a chanst with the mail," he went on, drawing his horses carefully around to where he meant to camp. "Me and the horses could make it, even 'f we lost the wagon. But I w'dn't like the job of huntin' for you folks in the Crazy Woman with a lantern—not tonight. She's surely a-rip-roarin'. Well; t'hell with her 'n' all creeks like her, say I," he wound up, chirruping kindly to his uncomplaining beasts.

"You don't like creeks," suggested Belle.

"Dry creeks—yes. Wouldn't care if I never seen another wet creek from now till kingdom come—Whoa, Nellie!" he called to the off lead mare who was feeling the way for her companions back to a safe spot for a halt. "This is good, right here."

Belle showed her fellow-traveler how to lie down with some comfort on the leather seat, and as they had one for each she gave Kate her choice. Kate, to put Belle between her and any man in front, took the back seat. The side curtains were let down and with a mail sack supplied by Bradley for a pillow, Kate, drawing her big coat over her, curled up for a rest.

The excitement of the journey had worn away. The delay she was disposed to accept philosophically. It took some time for Bradley to unhitch and dispose of the horses to his satisfaction, and theirs, and his mumblings and the sound of their moving about and champing their bits fell a long time on Kate's drowsy ears. Belle went to sleep at once, and though sleep was the last thing Kate expected to achieve, she did fall asleep—with the Crazy Woman singing wildly in her ears.

She had hardly lost herself, it seemed, when Bradley roused his passengers. The storm waters were creeping up over the bench where they had camped and with much impatient sputtering, Bradley hitched the pole team to the stage and, in his pet, retreated into the hills for assured safety. Even the noise of the flood failed to follow them there and they disposed themselves once more to rest.

How long she slept this time, Kate did not know, but she was awakened by voices.

The night had grown very cold and death itself could not have been more silent. Yet at intervals Kate heard the low converse of two voices; they were not far away and both were men's.

A panic seized her. Her heart beat like the roll of a drum and then nearly stopped. What might happen now? she asked herself. And what could she fear but the worst? In the dead of night—marooned in a wild country, with only a queer woman and two strange men. Could it be a plot? she asked herself. In the fear that gripped her she could hardly breathe, and to think was only to invite added agonies of apprehension. She sat quickly up, breathing hurriedly now and her heart racing. Then she heard the even breathing of her companion on the seat ahead. To make sure it was she, Kate put her hand over and touched Belle's shoulder. Reassured a little, but ready to push aside the curtain and spring from the stage at the least alarm, Kate listened painfully; the voices reached her ears again.

One was Bradley's—of that she felt sure; the other, deeper, more full, and with a curiously even carrying quality through the silent night, she knew she had never heard before; but the darkness, the solitude, the shock of strange surroundings, if nothing else, made it terrifying to her. Kate had never been reckoned a timid girl, but she listened dumb with fear. Bradley did most of the talking. He was recounting, with occasional profanity, the mishaps of his trip, beginning with the late train.

"Any passengers?" Kate heard the stranger ask.

"Two women—c'n y' beat it? One of 'em a girl for Doubleday's."

"What can a girl be wanting at Doubleday's?"

"D'no. Came off the train tonight."

"The Double-draw is out."

"Jing!" exclaimed Bradley, "it was there an hour ago."

"The ford is your only chance to get her over."

"Can I make it?"

"You've got good horses; you ought to make it by daylight."

"Hear they got a new foreman over at Doubleday's," Bradley said.

There was no comment, unless the silence could be so construed.

"Tom Stone," added Bradley, as if bound to finish.

There was an instant and angry exclamation, none the less ferocious because of the restrained feeling in its sudden utterance.

"Doubleday sets a good deal by what Van Horn says; I reckon he put him in there," suggested Bradley.

There was a further silence. Then she heard the stranger dryly say: "I expect so." It seemed as if behind everything he did say there was so much left unsaid.

"I never got rightly, Jim," Bradley went on, "how you 'n' Van Horn's related."

"I hope you never will," returned the man saluted as "Jim," in the same low, cold tone. "We're not related. He was my partner—once."

"Stone will change things at the ranch."

"He can't hurt them much."

"I guess they're full bad," said Bradley, and then, lowering his voice: "The gal's asleep there in the stage. How'd the land contest they made on y' at Medicine Bend come off?"

"The cattlemen own that Land Office. I'll beat the bunch at Washington."

"Doubleday wanted me to go down to swear. I wouldn't do it—wasn't even at the trial——"

"No honest man was, from Doubleday's."

"Was it Stone cut your wire, Jim?"

"You know as much about it as I do."

"Got it up again?"

"All I could find."

"Meaner 'n' hell over there, ain't they?"

There was no comment.

"How long you goin' to stand it, Jim?" persisted Bradley. And after the odd pause, the slow answer: "Till I get tired."

"That'll be about the time they rip it off again."

"About that time, Bill."

"Well," hazarded the old driver, meditatively, "the boys are waitin'. They say you're slow to start anything, Jim; but they look f'r hell t' pay when y' do."

To the stranger—it seemed to Kate—words must be worth their weight in gold, he parted with them so sparingly.

"What's this talk 'bout Farrell Kennedy makin' a depity marshal, Jim?"

"Mostly talk, Bill. Good night."

"Farrel offered it to y', didn't he?"'

"So Lefever says."

"Where y' headin' f'r now?" persisted Bradley, as Kate heard the shuffle of a horse's feet.

"Home."

"They ain't burned your shack?" Bradley asked with a half chuckle.

Kate just heard the man's reply: "Not yet."

The hoofbeats drew away. Kate cautiously pushed back her curtain.

The late moon was shining in an old and ghostly light. Distant heights rose like black walls against the sky. At intervals a peak broke sharply above the battlements, or a rift in a closer sierra opened to show the stars.

Kate could hear but could not for some time see the galloping horseman. Then of a sudden he reached the brow of a low hill and rode swiftly out into the spectral light. There he halted. Horse and rider stood for a moment silhouetted against the sky. The horse chafed at his bit. He stretched his head restively into the north, his rider sitting motionless, a somber flat hat crowning his spare figure. For barely a moment the man sat thus immovable. Then he turned slightly in the saddle and the horse struck off into the night.

Drowsiness had deserted the tired girl that watched him. While her companions slept she sat in the solitude waiting for day. Bradley, as good as an alarm dock, was stirring with the first streak and feeding his horses. He told his passengers that the bridges were all out and he was going back to the ford.

Belle, incredulous, when first told by Kate of a visitor in the night, had no scruples in asking questions:

"Who was here last night, Bill?"

"Wha'd' y' mean?" he countered, gathering up his lines.

"What man was it, you were talking to?" she demanded.

"I guess if I was talkin' to any man," he grumbled, "I was talkin' in my sleep. You must 'a' been 'a' dreamin'."

"Oh, come now, 'fess up, Bill." Belle nodded toward Kate. "She was awake."

Bradley started the horses, shifted on the box and looked not too well pleased: "I wasn't talkin' to nobody last night——"

"Bill, what a whopper."

"If you mean this mornin'——" he went on, doggedly.

"Well—who was here?"

"Jim Laramie."

"Jim Laramie!" echoed Belle, catching her breath and poking Kate with her elbow. "Wonder he didn't hold us up."

Bradley scowled but said nothing.

"Bradley doesn't like that," murmured Belle to Kate, as soon as the creaking of the wheels gave her a chance to speak without his hearing. "He's a friend of Jim's."

"Where did he come from?" continued Belle, raising her voice toward Bradley.

Bradley took his time to answer: "Claimed he was goin' home," he said laconically.

"How could he get across the creek with the bridges out?" persisted Belle.

Bradley's eyes were on his horses. He was weary of question: "High water wouldn't bother him much."

"Well, I want to know! I should think it would bother anybody the way it was sweeping down last night."

"Hell!" ejaculated Bradley, parting with his manners and his patience together: "Jim could swim the Crazy Woman with his horse's feet tied."

"Who is 'Jim'?" Kate demanded of her companion in an undertone.

"Jim Laramie? He lives in the Falling Wall."



CHAPTER III

DOUBLEDAY'S

When they got back to the ford it was daylight and the Crazy Woman was hurrying on as peacefully as if a frown had never ruffled its repose. Gnarled trees springing out of gashes along its tortuous channel showed, in the debris lodged against their flood-bared roots and mud-swept branches, the fury of the night, and the creek banks, scoured by many floods, revealed new and savage gaps in the morning sun; but Bradley made his crossing with the stage almost as uneventfully as if a cloud-burst had never ruffled the mountains.

Kate was eager to meet her father, eager to see what might be her new home. The moment the horses got up out of the bottom, Bradley pointed with his whip to the ranch-house. Kate saw ahead of her a long, one-story log house crowning, with its group of out-buildings, a level bench that stretched toward the foothills. The landscape was bare of trees and, to Kate, brown and barren-looking, save for a patch of green near the creek where an alfalfa field lay vividly pretty in the sun. The ranch-house, built of substantial logs, was ample in its proportions and not uninviting, even to her Eastern eyes.

Bradley, with a flourish, swept past the stable, around the corral and drew up before the door with a clatter. In front of the bunk-house on the right, a cowboy rolling a cigarette, was watching the arrival, and just as Bradley plumped Kate, on his arms, to the ground, her father, Barb Doubleday himself, opened the ranch-house door.

Kate had never seen her father. And until Bradley spoke, she had not the slightest idea that this could be he. She saw only a rough-looking man of great stature, slightly stooped, and with large features burnt to a deep brown.

"Hello, Barb," said Bradley, without much enthusiasm.

His salutation met with as little: "What's up?" demanded Doubleday. Kate noticed the huskiness in the strong, cold tone.

"Brought y' a passenger."

From the talk of the night she recognized her father's nickname. It was a little shock to realize that this must, indeed, be he. And the unmoved expression of his face as he surveyed her without a smite or greeting, was not reassuring.

But she hastened forward: "Father?" there was a note of girlish appeal in her greeting: "I'm Kate—your daughter. You don't remember me, of course," she added with an effort to extort a welcome. "You got my letter, did you?"

He looked at her uncertainly for a moment and nodded slowly. "Was it all right," she asked, now almost panic-stricken, "to come to see you?"

Confused or preoccupied, he stumbled out some words of welcome, spoke to Belle on the stage, took the suitcase out of Bradley's hand and led Kate into the house. In the large room that she entered stood a long table and a big fireplace opened at the back. On the left, two bedrooms opened off the big room, and on the right, the kitchen.

The chill of the strange greeting embarrassed Kate the more because she felt Belle could hardly fail to notice it, and her own resentment of it did not easily wear off. But hoping for better things she freshened up a little, in her father's bedroom, and by that time a man cook was bringing breakfast into the big room, which served as living-room and dining-room. Bradley, Belle, Kate and her father sat down—the men had already breakfasted.

Kate, her head in a whirl with novelty and excitement, was overcome with interest in everything, but especially in her father. Sitting at the head of the table—at one end of which fresh places had been set—he maintained her first impression of his stature. His spreading frame was covered with loose corduroy clothes—which could hardly be said to fit—and his whole appearance conveyed the impression of unusual physical strength. It had been said of Barb Doubleday, as a railroad builder, that he could handle an iron rail alone. His powerful jaw and large mouth—now fitted, or rather, supplied—with artificial teeth of proportionate size—all supported Kate's awe of his bigness. His long nose, once smashed in a railroad fight, was not seriously scarred; and originally well-shaped, it was still the best feature of a terrifically weather-beaten face that had evidently seen milder days. The good looks were gone, but not the strength. His mouth was almost shapeless but unmistakably hard, and his grayish-blue eyes were cold—very cold; try as she would, Kate could discern little love or sympathy in them. This was the man who almost twenty years earlier had deserted her mother and wee Kate, the baby, and long disappeared from Eastern view—until by accident the fact that he was alive and in the far West had become known to his wife and daughter. Kate thought she understood something of the tragedy in her mother's life when the first sight of her father's eyes struck a chill into her own heart.

But he was her father—and her mother had tried, in spite of all, to hide or condone his faults; and more than once before she died, had made Kate promise to hunt him up and go to him. What the timid girl dreaded most was finding another woman installed in his household—in which case she meant to make her stay in the West very short. But every hour lessened these fears and as he himself gradually thawed a little, Kate took courage.

The breakfast went fast. Platters were passed without ceremony or delay. Her father and Bradley ate as Kate had never seen men eat; only her amazement could keep pace with their quiet but unremitting efforts to clean up everything in sight. There was little mastication but much knife and fork work, with free libation of coffee; and Belle, Kate noticed, while somewhat left behind by the men, paid strict attention to the business in hand.

Conversation naturally lagged; but what took place had its surprise for Kate. Doubleday asked a few questions of Belle—everybody seemed to know everybody else—and learning she was headed for the Reservation, possibly to teach school, hired her on the spot away from the job, to go back to his eating-house at Sleepy Cat Junction. No sooner was this arranged, and Bradley told to take her luggage off the stage, than a diversion occurred.

A horseman dashed up outside and presently strode into the room. He was tall and well put together; not quite as straight as an arrow, but straight, and not ungraceful in his height. This was Harry Van Horn, a neighboring cattleman, and he wore the ranchman's rig, including the broad hat and the revolver slung at his hip. But everything about the rig was fresh and natty, in the sunshine. He looked alert. His step was clean and springy as he crossed the room, and his voice not unpleasant as he briskly greeted Doubleday and looked keenly at his guests—last and longest at Kate sitting at her father's right hand.

Doubleday introduced him to his daughter. Van Horn nodded, without much deference, to Belle and to Bradley, neither of whom responded more warmly. He sat down near Kate and with a look of raillery scrutinized the remnant of meat left on the general platter: "How is it, Barb?" he asked.

"What?"

"The antelope."

"All right, I guess."

Van Horn with a laugh turned to Kate: "Excited over it, isn't he? I got an antelope yesterday, so I sent half of it over to your father." Then he lowered his voice in pretended disgust. "He doesn't know what he's eating—it might as well be salt pork. And you're a stranger here? I never knew your father had a daughter. He's very communicative. How do you like antelope?"

Without paying attention to anyone else, he set out for a moment to entertain Kate. When he talked his face lighted with energy. Every expression of his brown eyes snapped with life, and his big Roman nose, though not making for beauty, one soon got used to.

Barb broke abruptly in on the conversation: "What did Stone find out?" he asked.

Van Horn answered a question of Kate's and turned then, and not until then, to her father: "That's what I came over to tell you. Dutch Henry and another fellow—described like Stormy Gorman—sold ten head of steers to the railroad camp last week—that's where our cattle are going right along now. And Abe Hawk," he exclaimed, pointing his finger at Doubleday and poking it forward to emphasize each point, "sold ten head of your long yearlings to a contracting outfit north of the Falling Wall and never changed the brands!"

Doubleday stared at the speaker. Van Horn, speaking to Kate, went right on: "There's a bunch of rustlers over in the Falling Wall, snitching steers on us right and left," he explained in a lower and very deferential tone, but a warm one.

While Van Horn talked and Doubleday muttered husky and bitter questions, Bradley and Belle paid continuous attention to their coffee and griddle cakes.

Doubleday by this time had forgotten all about Kate. Completely absorbed by the reports brought in he rose from the table and followed Van Horn to the open door where Van Horn turned and paused as he kept on talking so that with his eyes he could still take in Kate at the table. The two men were now joined at the door by a third. This man looked in to see who was at the table. Bradley glanced up at him only long enough to recognize Tom Stone, the new foreman; no greeting passed. Kate looked longer, though when she saw the eyes of the new-comer were on her she gave her attention to Belle.

Belle had told her that a woman at the ranch would be a great curiosity and Kate every day resigned herself to inspection. When she got better acquainted with the men, and while there were good and bad among them, she liked them all, except Stone. His face did not seem kindly. At times agreeable enough, he was only tolerable at best and when even slightly in liquor he was irritable. His low forehead, over which he plastered his hair, and his straight yellow eyebrows and hard blue eyes were not confidence inspiring; even his big mustache was harsh and lacked a generous curve—his normal outlook seemed one of reticence and suspicion. Kate refused to like him; his smile was not good.

On this morning he showed the signs of a hard journey. He had brought the news from the Falling Wall and was just in after a troublesome ride. Bradley and Belle left the table together and Kate followed to the door. Bradley tried to edge past the three men without speaking, but Stone not only stopped him with a cold grin but followed the driver toward the stage: "Wouldn't that kill you"—Kate heard him say to Bradley, and she saw his attempt at an ingratiating grin: "Abe Hawk rustling?"

Bradley gave him scant sympathy: "What did Doubleday discharge him for?" he demanded. "What did the cattlemen blacklist him for? He's the best foreman this ranch ever had—or ever will have," added Bradley, summoning his scant courage to rub it in. "He fired him because he took up a little piece of land agin the Falling Wall and got together a few cows of his own. That's a crime, ain't it? Like ——. These cattlemen will learn a thing or two when they get old."

Stone flared back at him: "What are you over here eating their bacon for?"

"Not f'r any likin' I've got f'r 'em," retorted Bradley, "n'r f'r any o' their pets."

The old driver got away without a fight, but he had little to spare. Van Horn rode off presently with Stone, and Doubleday returned to the house, where Kate was sitting with Belle. He told Belle he would send her over to the Junction in the afternoon, and after dinner told Kate she had better go over and stay at the Junction with Belle till they could get a room "fixed up" at the ranch.

There were really no accommodations at the ranchhouse for Kate until some could be prepared. A room had to be made ready and there was no bed or furniture. And Belle told her that her father spent most of his time at the Junction, anyway, where he had a cottage. She explained about the railroad branching off the main line at the Junction. Her father had built this to coal mines on the Falling Wall river. He was supposed to own this branch line and the mines, but she hinted strongly that his creditors had got everything there was of the railroad but the rust, and would sometime get that.

Kate wished her new acquaintance had been less candid.



CHAPTER IV

AT THE EATING HOUSE

Doubleday drove the two women down from the ranch. At the Junction there were, besides the railroad eating house, a few houses and a few stores, and almost as many saloons as at Sleepy Cat itself—the place being, Belle said, a shipping point both for cattle and for miners.

Kate was relieved to find her father's cottage, on a hill across the railroad track, quite livable-looking. It was, like all the other houses, one story and square, being divided into kitchen, dining-room and two bedrooms. The interior, its shiny furniture covered with dust, was dreary enough, but Kate knew she could make the place presentable, and after the first few days in her new surroundings, began to recover her high spirits. Her father had not yet said she was to stay; but she thought he liked her—Belle told her as much—and she set about making her woman's hand felt. Her father took his meals at the eating-house, and the cottage had been indifferently cared for by old Henry, the eating-house porter. Kate, as a housekeeper, was a marked improvement, one that even so absorbed a man as her father could not but notice.

She naturally spent much time at the eating-house herself, because Belle, her sole acquaintance at the Junction, was there.

"How you going to like it out here?" demanded Belle, scrutinizing Kate critically, after she had known her a few months.

"I love it," was the prompt answer.

Belle seemed dismayed: "How about the alkali?" she asked, as if to convict Kate of deceit.

Kate only nodded: "It's all right."

"And the sagebrush?"

"I like it."

"And the greasewood?"

"Why not?"

Belle had begun to like Kate's laugh: "Not going to get lonesome out in this country?" Belle flung at her, as a gloomy clincher.

"Lonesome!" At this idea Kate laughed outright. "Do I look it?" she cried.

"Guess you like to horseback pretty well," muttered Belle, casting about for a solution of so surprising an attitude and unable to find any other fault with her protegee.

"I'd rather ride than eat," declared Kate, youthfully exuberant.

"What about swimming?" inquired Belle, determined to fasten discontent on her.

"I hate swimming."

"Well," grumbled her companion, defeated at every point, "Barb's got plenty of horses." Kate did not like to hear her father called Barb, but Belle would not call him anything else.

Back of the cottage, Doubleday had a small barn, where Henry—an ex-cowboy—looked after Doubleday's driving horses. And the very first pledge from her father that she was to be tolerated in the strange household she had invaded in this far-away country, came to Kate when he sent down for her use two saddle ponies. The fleeting suspicion of loneliness that she would not confess even to herself, all vanished when the ponies came: She could then ride to and from the ranch. And when Henry failed to appear, Kate took care of her pets herself. After her father told her they were really hers, she would hardly let Henry himself lay a hand on them.

When the evenings grew tedious she would go down for supper with Belle and sit with her in the small alcove off the office, where the two could see and hear without being seen; and Belle's stories had no end.

The only feature of her situation that would not improve was her father's aloofness. He seemed to try at times to thaw out but he persistently congealed again. One evening he got in late from the ranch, cold and wet, complaining of rheumatism. The driver went on with the team to Sleepy Cat and Doubleday told Kate he would stay all night. She had a good fire in the grate and made her father a toddy.

He sat with her before the fire late and talked for the first time about his affairs, which seemed mostly money troubles.

Next morning he could hardly get out of bed, but he was set on going to the ranch and Kate helped him to dress and got him a good breakfast, with a cup of strong coffee. He softened enough to let her go up to the ranch with him. She had already coaxed from him the furniture for the spare room so she might spend the night there occasionally. Van Horn had promised to teach her sometime how to use a rifle and to take her out after antelope and Kate was keen for going. The next day her father brought her the rifle from Sleepy Cat.

They drove out in the evening, but the minute they reached the ranch-house, Kate perceived something was up. Van Horn greeted her with a good deal of freedom, Kate thought—but apologized for hurrying away after she had shown him her new rifle—with the hint that they had bigger game in sight just then, and after a long talk with her father and much preparation he and Stone rode off, two of the men from the bunk-house with them. Her father plainly let Kate see that he himself had no intention of entertaining her. He was outside most of the time and Kelly, the cook, being the only man to talk to, Kate in self-defense went to bed.

During the night she was awakened by voices. Van Horn and Stone were back and they were talking to her father in the living-room. Kate thought at first some accident had happened. Van Horn, eager, pleased and rapid in utterance, did much of the talking, Stone breaking in now and again with a few words in harsh nasal tones—harsher tonight than usual. Her father seemed only to ask a question once in a while. Kate tried not to eavesdrop, but she could not occasionally help hearing words about wire, which Van Horn was sure somebody would never find. The men had apparently been somewhere and done something. The clink of glasses indicated drinking, and there was much cursing of something or somebody. Then the talk got loud and her father hushed it up and the party went to bed.

There seemed something furtive and secret about the incident that Kate could not fathom. Why should honest men get together in the dead of night to exult and curse and drink? She composed herself to sleep again; these were simply things she did not understand. She thought she did not want to understand them, but even after she got back to the Junction she wondered why her father should be mixed up in them.

Meantime she spent a week of delight at the ranch, mostly on horseback, learning the Western horse and Western riding.

After her outing, Doubleday took Kate down to the Junction. He went on to Sleepy Cat, but that night he came back ill. In the morning he was not able to get up.

Kate telephoned, as he directed, to Sleepy Cat, for Doctor Carpy.

The doctor, when he came, looked Kate over with interest. He was a smooth-faced, powerfully-built man, rough-looking and rough in speech, but he knew his business. It was an acute attack of rheumatism, he said, and he told Kate to keep her father in bed and to keep him quiet and nurse him.

"He's so active," said Kate regretfully. "He seems to be on the go all the time."

"Damn him!" exclaimed Carpy with blunt emphasis. "He's nervous all the time—that's what's the matter. He's got too many irons in the fire."

Kate swallowed her astonishment at so extraordinary a medical outburst. She reminded herself she was really out West.

Belle, when Kate saw her the following morning at the eating-house, said much the same thing and added in her coldly philosophic way, "I reckon the banks have got him. And say, Kate, here's a telegram just come for your father."

Kate took the despatch up to the cottage. It was from Van Horn at Medicine Bend, and it so upset her father that she was sorry she had had to deliver it. After an interval, unpleasant both for the disabled man and his nurse, Kate ventured to ask whether there was not something she could do. There was not. Litigation against him, long dormant—he explained between twinges—had been revived, papers issued and a United States deputy marshal was on the way to serve him. "I thought," he growled, "the thing was dead. But nothing against me ever dies. If it'd gone past today it would 'a' been outlawed. You'll have to send some telegrams for me."

He gave her the substance of them and of a letter he wanted written—all of which she carefully took down. Then putting on her hat, she hastened to the eating-house to send the telegrams.

It was well past noon. At the lunch-counter desk Kate copied the messages on telegraph blanks, took them up to the operator and came downstairs to write the letter for her father.

While she was doing this, the two o'clock Medicine Bend train pulled in. It was the big through train of the day, the train that Belle had said must bring the dreaded summons server from Medicine Bend, if he came that day at all. But Kate, absorbed in her letter writing, had forgotten all about this unpleasantness when something—she was never able to say just what—recalled her to herself. She became all at once conscious that she was writing a letter, and at the same time conscious that she was no longer alone in the little room.



CHAPTER V

CROSS PURPOSES

The only thing Kate could have noticed was a slight darkening of the room; something momentarily obscured the sunlight streaming through the platform doorway; someone sauntered into the room itself, but Kate was signing the letter and gave the entrance no thought. Still she could not shake off the consciousness of somebody walking up close to the desk where she stood and sitting down on one of the counter stools. She refused to look up, even though she felt that eyes were on her.

A natural impulse of defiance at the uninvited scrutiny possessed her. And being resolved she would not admit she was conscious of it, she turned from the desk and looking straight toward the glass door connecting with the dining-room, and behind the end of the counter, she walked briskly past the intruding presence.

As she did so, Kate somehow felt with every step that she could not get out of the room unchallenged. But even then she was riding to a rude surprise for she had reached the door without incident when she heard two words: "Slow, Kate." She had already laid her hand on the knob and she turned it with indignation. The wretched door refused to open! It was Belle's afternoon off and she had locked the door.

Even then a collected girl would not have surrendered to the situation. But Kate never could be collected at just the right time. She was usually quite collected when it made no difference whether she was collected or not. All she now did was to look blankly around. A man sat at the counter, a man she had never seen before. He was deliberately lifting a broad horseman's hat from a rather round, high forehead and disclosing a head of inoffensive-looking sandy hair, very much sun-and-wind bleached. His smooth face, his ears and neck and open throat, were colored by a strictly uniform pigment—tinctured by many mountain winds into a reddish brown and burnt by many mountain suns into a seemingly immutable bronze. The face was long with an ample nose, a peaceful-looking mouth and unruffled gray eyes. The man was very like and yet unlike many of the mountain men she had seen. She remembered afterward that this was her first impression: at that moment she was not analyzing it: "Where are you going?" he asked, as she stood looking at him.

Her resentment at the rudeness rose. Could a prophetic spirit have warned Kate that this was to be only the first of more than one serious encounter with the eyes steadily regarding her, her astonishment and indignation might have been restrained. As it was, forgetting her own position and descending to Western brusqueness, she retorted icily: "I can't see how that can possibly interest you."

If she hoped that a frigid tone and utterance might abash her intruding questioner, they failed. He spoke again with surprisingly even impertinence—quite as if she were as friendly as he. "You're wrong," he said. "I'm mightily interested. I want some coffee and you don't act to me as if you meant to come back."

It was undignified and improper for her to bandy words with a heckler, but Kate had already breathed too much of the freedom of the mountains to resist a second retort, and said, almost without thinking—and certainly in a very positive manner: "I am not coming back."

"Give me a cup of coffee before you go."

"There is no service here this afternoon."

"Beg your pardon. There will be one service here this afternoon. You will serve me." His emphasis was slight, but unmistakable. She was so fussed she turned to the door and grasped the knob the second time. Her persecutor raised his left hand firmly. "You can't get out there," he said.

"Why can't I?" demanded Kate indignantly.

"Because you can't open the door." She stood mute at his assurance. "Come," he continued, "give me some coffee, like a good girl."

What should she do? She did not speak the question, but weighed it pretty rapidly in her mind. What manner of man had she to deal with? If not actually threatening he was extremely domineering. While she hesitated he regarded her calmly.

But there was one way to do as he demanded and to punish him as well. Of the two coffee urns kept filled in readiness for the rush in serving a trainload of passengers, only one was now heated. Kate stepped to the urns, murmuring as if to herself: "I know nothing about these."

"I don't either," he said. From the nearer urn Kate drew a cup of coffee; it was very cold—but she pushed it with a jug of cream and a bowl of sugar, toward him.

"A teaspoon, please?" Kate's excitement had already heightened her color. She looked very much alive as she added, impatiently, a spoon to the equipment—expecting then to be able to get out of the room. It seemed as if this ought to big easy; it was not. Her tormentor professed to have had no dinner and wanted a sandwich. The sandwiches were rebelliously hunted up—a plateful was supplied. If he was surprised at the prodigality he made no comment, but at intervals some tantalizing word from him entangled her in another exchange; and at each encounter of wits, just enough fear tempered her resentment to make her irresolute.

She was malicious enough to observe in silence the unobtrusive pantomime by which the enemy tried to coax a semblance of warmth into his cold coffee. He had begun by pouring cream into it, but the cream refused to assimilate and only made the mixture look less inviting.

"I'm glad I met you today," he said, while she was getting her breath. "Looks lonesome around here. Not much doing at the mines, is there?"

"Not a great deal," she answered coldly.

"How about Barb Doubleday—is he up at the mines, or here?"

He was indifferently lifting matches from the stand at his hand, striking them and burning them patiently against the side of his cup of coffee. Like a flash came to Kate with his question, the thought that this disagreeable person must be the court officer. He looked up at her now as if waiting for an answer: "Why do you ask?" she countered.

"Mostly because I'd like to hear you say something."

"Anything, I suppose," she suggested ironically.

"That's not far from it," was the reply. "Also, I want to see Barb."

"What about?" she asked, borrowing his own assurance. It was time, she thought, for defensive strategy.

"Just a little business matter." It was long, very long afterward that Kate learned, and fully realized, the significance of the indifferently spoken words; when she did, she wondered that a man's manner could so completely mask all that lay behind them.

"He isn't hiring any men," she ventured, adapting a set phrase she had often heard Belle use.

"And in spite of my looks," he returned, "I'm not hunting a job—for a wonder."

But now that Kate wanted to hear more he took his turn at reticence. "Where are you from?" she asked as unconcernedly as she could.

"Medicine Bend."

"From the marshal's office?" It was foolish of her to ask. She fairly blurted out the words. He looked at her for the first time keenly—and just the change in his expression, undefinable but unmistakable, almost frightened her to death.

"I was in the marshal's office yesterday," he answered, picking up a sandwich evasively. Kate was no longer doubtful. This was the man to serve the dreaded, summons. An instant of panic seized her. Fortunately her persecutor was regarding his stubborn coffee as he stirred it. Her heart, which had stopped, started with a thump. Her thoughts cleared. Instinct, self-preservation, asserted itself. She thought hard and fast. The first step was to temporize.

He looked up in time to see the blood sweeping back into her cheeks; and almost spoiled the first really good breath she was drawing. In his lean, bronzed hands he clasped his cup of coffee as if trying to put a degree of heat into it: "What would be the extra charge for a shot at that hot tank?" he asked, directing his glance first at the other tank, then at Kate's burning face.

With all his confidence, he must have been surprised at the revulsion of manner that greeted him. Kate recovered her poise—her coldness vanished, a smile broke through her reserve and her confused regret was promptly expressed: "Did I give you coffee out of the cold tank? How stupid!"

"And never in my life," said her queer customer, as if continuing her words, "did I do anything mean to you."

"Oh, yes, you did," objected Kate, coupling nervous haste with the declaration as she tried to take the cold cup from between his hands. The ease with which she assumed the role of a lunch-counter waitress astonished her.

"What did I do?" he drawled, resisting her attempt to make amends.

"You said I couldn't go out that door," she answered, refusing to be denied the cup.

"I was hoping if you stayed a few minutes, you wouldn't want to." A moment earlier she would have been indignant. Now she reconciled herself to necessity. She was, indeed, wildly hoping she might be able to coax him not to serve any paper. And she had to repress an absurd laugh at the thought as she set a fresh and steaming cup before him.

While he made ready to drink it she leaned with assured indifference against the buffet shelf behind her. She spread her left arm and hand innocently along its edge as she had seen waitresses do—and with her right hand, toyed with the loose collar of her crepe blouse—chatting the while like a perfectly good waitress with her suspect. The funny part seemed to her that he took it all with entire seriousness, hardly laughing; only a suspicion of a smile, playing at times around his eyes, relieved the somberness of his lean face. His parted lips showed regular teeth when he spoke, and gave a not unpleasant expression to his mouth. His eyes were as inoffensive as a mountain lake.

But there remained something stubborn in his dry manner and at times her heart misgave her as to the hope of dissuading him from his purpose. Trying to form some idea of how to act, she studied him with anxiety. All she could actually reach as a conclusion was that he might be troublesome to dissuade.

Yet with every moment she was the more determined to keep him from carrying out his mission and the more resolved to make him pay for his Western manners. All this was running through her head while the coffee was being sipped. Unhappily, her father was where she could not possibly reach him with a warning until Belle should reappear on the scene. She tendered her now tractable guest a second cup of coffee. It was accepted; he talked on, asking many questions, which were answered more or less to his satisfaction. Not that his inquiries were impertinent; they were chiefly silly, Kate thought. He seemed most intent on establishing a friendly footing with a lunch-counter attendant.

When his third cup had been drunk and payment tendered for it, and for five or six sandwiches, Kate decided her time to escape had arrived. She refused to accept his money: "No," she persisted, "I will not take a thing for your lunch. Positively not. Oh, you may leave your dollar on the counter, if you like—it will never go into the register."

"Why not?"

"I've told you."

"Say it again."

"You were very patient over my blunder in giving you cold coffee."

"To tell you the truth," he remarked with candor, "it didn't look to me altogether like a blunder."

"Oh, it was," she insisted shamelessly; but she did not feel at all sure he believed her. "And I won't take your money. I want you—" her eyes fell the least bit with her repentant words—"to have a better impression of this counter than cold coffee would give you. We're trying so hard to build up a business."

"Golly!" observed her calm guest. "I thought a few minutes ago you were trying to wreck one."

"You Medicine Bend men always make fun of this valley," Kate complained.

"I don't really belong in Medicine Bend," was his return.

"Where do you belong?"

"In the Falling Wall."

"Oh! that awful place?"

"Why knock the Falling Wall?"

"I never heard any good of it. No matter anyway; you may put up your money. And some time when I am up in your country," she added jestingly, "you can give me a cup of cold coffee."

"We'll say nothing more about the coffee," he declared in blunt fashion. "Just you come!" He yielded so honestly to deceit that Kate was half ashamed at imposing on him.

"Tell me," he went on, spinning his silver dollar in leisurely fashion on the smooth counter, "how am I going to get up to the mines today after I look around here for Barb—where can I get a horse?"

Kate reflected a moment. "I can get you some kind of a horse," she said slowly. "But it would take you forever to get there on horseback—the trail runs around by the river. The train will get you there first. It goes up at four o'clock."

She knew she said it all blandly, though conscious of her duplicity. It was not exactly falsehood that she spoke—but it was meant to mislead. The man was regarding her steadily with eyes that seemed to Kate not in the least double-dealing.

"What am I going to do till four o'clock?" he asked, making without discussion her subtle suggestion his own.

She lifted her eyebrows disclaimingly—even shrugged her shoulders: "What are you going to do?" he persisted. She was ready. She looked longingly out of the window. The sun blazed over the desert in a riot of gold.

"It's my day off," she observed, adding just a suspicion of discontent and uncertainty to her words. She fingered her tie, too; then dropped her eyes; and added, "I thought I might take a ride."

He started: "Couldn't get two horses, could you?"

"Two?" echoed Kate, looking surprised.

He rose: "I'll turn up two if I have to steal 'em," he declared, reaching for his hat.

"That would be too much trouble for one little ride," Kate said ironically. "I'll see what I can do, first. But," she added, basely, "if you want to be sure of catching the train, I should advise you to stay right here. It backs down and doesn't stay but a minute—just long enough to hook on to the empties."

Her warning had no effect. It was not meant to have any. She knew if he got to the mines and learned that her father was at the Junction he would return in no time to serve him. He was decently restrained now, but he swallowed her bait, hook and all: "Where do you think you can find horses?" he asked.

"Where I work."

"Where do you work?"

"Sometimes here and sometimes up at Mr. Doubleday's cottage. The barn-boy gets up a horse for me any time."

He raised an unexpected difficulty: "I wouldn't feel just right, today, riding a horse of Barb Doubleday's," he said doubtfully.

The words only confirmed her suspicions. Her fears rose but her wits did not desert her: "Ride mine," she suggested. "I've got my own horse, of course."

He drew a breath: "All I can say is, if you ever come over my way, I'll show you as good a time as I know how to."

She put up her hand: "Wait till you see how you like my good time."

He was quick to come back. "I'll agree right now to like anything you offer—and I don't care a hang what it is, either."

Looking straight at him she asked a question. Its emphasis lay in her quiet tone: "Will you stand to that?" He looked at her until she felt his eyes were going right through her: "I've got enemies," he said slowly, and there was now more than a touch of hardness in his voice; "most men have. But the worst of 'em never claimed my word isn't good."

"Then," exclaimed Kate, hastening to escape the serious tone, "you tend counter while I go and see about the horses."

"No," he objected, "that's a man's job. You tell me where to go and I'll get the horses."

Kate was most firm: "If you're going to ride with me," she said, "you must do my way. Take a woman's job for a few minutes and see how you like it."

He regarded her with the simplicity of a child, but replied like a case-hardened cowboy: "I don't like a woman's job, of course. But I'm ready to do any blamed thing you say."

"Do you suppose," Kate demanded with an air, "they would turn two horses over to you up at Doubleday's?"

She had put her foot in it: "I tell you," he protested, "I don't want to ride a horse of Doubleday's. I'm up here to talk to Barb Doubleday. And nobody can say just how it's coming out. At the ranch they swore he was at Sleepy Cat. I rode down there and they told me he was at the Junction, so I took the train over here. Now you tell me he's at the mines—that's where I'll say what I've got to say. But I don't want to take any advantage. And I don't want to impose on his property rights so much as a single hair. That's exactly what's between us."

Kate, established in treacherous ambush, felt qualms at his stern, clear code.

She tried to shut him off, but he was wrought up: "Barb swore to me once he had nothing to do with it," he persisted obstinately. "All I can say is, if a man fools me once it's his fault; if he fools me twice, it's mine."

"What about a woman?" asked Kate, trying hard to say one thing and think another.

He opened his eyes: "I never thought much about that. A man can't fight a woman," he returned reflectively. "And I've yet to see one I could fool."

"What should you do," she asked, turning her back while she straightened her hat in the buffet mirror, "if you ever met one that fooled you?"

"No woman would ever take the trouble."

She laughed a little: "You never can tell."

"If a woman ever fooled me, she'd have to fool herself first—so she'd be the loser."

"What a philosopher!"

"First and last, I've been called a good many names—some full hard—but never a philosopher before."

Kate started for the front door: "Hold on a minute," he objected, "what's to do here while you're gone?"

"Serve coffee and sandwiches if anybody comes in. This time of day there's never anybody comes in."

He turned on his stool: "How soon'll you be back?"

"In a few minutes."

"Get a good horse for yourself."

Kate gave him a parting shot: "Of course you think I can't ride."

It did not take her long to get up the hill. Breathless, she encountered old Henry in the garden, asked him for the ponies and almost ran into the house. Her father was asleep. There was no reason to stir him up over a situation that she was resolved to handle and felt she could handle. She got into her riding clothes in a trice, all the time wondering whether she could hold her wild man in leash long enough to defeat him. Had he been more like anybody she had ever met and known, the problem would have been less confusing. But she determined to shut her eyes and win the fight if she could, and to this end draft every resource. So she thought, at least, as she caught up her little revolver and, dropping it into the scabbard she had belted about her waist, set forth.

She rode back one of her own ponies and led the other. Her enemy had good ears for when she was half way to the eating-house he walked out on the platform and silently surveyed her approach. Kate watched him narrowly and drew up before him to estimate the effect. She was disappointed, she had to confess, at his cool indifference, for she thought her riding rig unusually pretty. It had seemingly failed to impress her queer Westerner. His eyes were all for the horses. "Clean ponies," he observed, taking the bridle rein from her hand as he looked the two over.

"I forgot to ask what kind of a saddle you like," she observed indifferently. He was scanning the horses and his eyes not being on her she got her first real good look at her antagonist—whether he was to be her victim she was in somewhat anxious doubt.



CHAPTER VI

WHICH WINS?

He was long of limb, rather loose-jointed; but not ungraceful, except as his simple manner and unassuming rig—neither soiled nor fresh—made him seem so; at all events what he might look like was apparently of slight moment to him. He had a good walk—Kate noticed that when he crossed the platform; not the choppy, high-heeled gait of a man that never does anything but ride, but an easy step that matched the expressions of his eyes. His quick movements seemed, as usual with bronzed Western men, younger than his face; and his twenty-eight years would, as a first impression, have passed for well above thirty, with Kate. She had struggled too long with charcoal and lead pencils not to perceive that his frame was clean and his shoulders good; and his head was well set on them, if the man would carry it where it belonged. But he was plainly not vain; and since we usually accept at sight whatever draft men and women themselves draw on our impressions, Kate would have regarded him ordinarily with no more than he demanded—indifference.

"Any kind of saddle will do me," he answered in response to an inquiry; and he repeated his compliment to the horses. He looked well at his own: "This is a good pony." Kate assumed a little: "All our ponies are good."

"I wish you'd show them to me sometime," was his unassuming request. The remark should have been enough to warn Kate that her deception rested on very thin ice; that it was more than probable he had already penetrated much of it. But, a beginner in deception, she was intent only on her own part and took his good-natured acquiescence at its face value. The moment he saw her ponies he knew they were Doubleday's: yet he seemed willing to forego his scruple rather than to lose the ride.

Kate, too, was disposed to be amiable: "I will show them to you sometime," she said promptly.

But whenever she thawed for an instant she felt directly the necessity of freezing up again. Her remarks were divided as evenly as a mountain April day—one moment spring, the next winter. Happily for her purposes, the day itself was spring. She had mounted her horse but as she spoke, she slipped from her saddle, threw her lines and, walking hurriedly into the dining room, returned with a handful of wrapped sandwiches. She looked at him as she held the package out: "How can we carry them?"

He disposed of the store in a capacious pocket and then hesitated: "I wonder if you'd mind waiting five minutes while I go up to Doubleday's house."

"What for?" she asked, professing surprise.

"To see what I can find out about where he is."

"I've told you all you can find out by going to the house," she returned deprecatingly. He looked at her as if undecided. "When you ask to go riding with me and I get the horses—I come first, don't I?" she asked cavalierly; and before he could help her she was back again in the saddle.

He hesitated no longer: "You come first any time," he said, "and anywhere," he added, swinging up on his own pony.

She looked sidewise at him as they trotted up the street: "You don't mind rather rough riding?"

"Anything the ponies can stand," was all he said.

Kate had given him her dun pony. Spirit-free all the time the trim beast either through instinct knew his rider or meant to cast off care in a long fling. He took the stage the moment his rider touched the saddle. Kate rode Dick, her lighter but faster gray pony. He danced attendance for a time, but the dun kept the spotlight and gave Kate a chance to regard the man just from Medicine Bend critically. She had meant to put him on exhibition—perhaps cherished a hope he might ride only indifferently well—yet in a country where everybody rode, this was much to hope for. At all events, the result, with an added surprise, was a disappointment.

If there be a latent awkwardness in a man, the saddle mirrors it; and if there lie in him anywhere dormant an unsuspected alertness, it wakes in the saddle to action. Her companion had hardly found his stirrups before Kate perceived a change. His body sprung molded from the cantle, his careless shoulders came to attention, and as the pony curvetted riotously, the rider's head, rising like a monitor straight from his slender neck, invited his horse to show its paces.

"You take the trail," said Kate's guest tersely, as they swung out on the desert.

"No," she returned, "you."

"We'll take it together," was his reply.

But despite her disclaiming, Kate did the guiding and her object was to get a good way from town. Her companion's frequently repeated effort was to slow down for a talk; hers was to tantalize him by speeding away from one. But she couldn't speed all of the time, and he eyed either her riding, or her habit, pretty closely for a good while without comment. Then a chance offered itself and he put a question: "Where did you learn to ride?"

"All mountain girls ride, don't they?" she suggested.

"You're not a mountain girl."

"It was a mountain girl that taught me to ride,—away back in the Alleghanies—long before I ever saw this country."

"Your mountain girl's pupils don't all ride like that, I'll gamble."

"I wasn't very bright." Kate spurred ahead. The dun pony kept after her.

"Compliments don't set very well on you, do they?" was the shot from her left a moment later.

She turned a full face on her companion: "I hate them," she declared with energy.

In luring this man away from his errand, she had yielded to a really wild impulse and now the spirit of recklessness that ruled her mood seemed to revenge itself by counseling added dangers. She invited riding-hazards, that her victim disdained to comment on, until they must have appeared silly to him. A long way from home they were crossing a high bench above the Falling Wall river, a bench cut by frequent lateral washes—some wide and all very deep. These breaks they jumped one after another without taking serious trouble to head them, though Kate's companion, riding on the river side, gave her every chance to do so.

"I suppose," he suggested at length, "you're pushing into rough country because you like it."

She looked at him: "Yes," she said, icily, "I do like it. But," she added, "if it's too rough for you, we'll go back." In that much of a challenge she felt safe.

"I'm riding with you," he returned, a little dryly. "I like anything you like."

And at this juncture Kate's luck deserted her; it always seemed to when she most needed it. Ahead, there lay a stretch of smooth bench and she took a run to cross it. But below a slight rise on the near side an ugly break suddenly faced her. Decision was forced. Recklessness said: "Take it." She spurred. The gray hesitated—almost as if to give his wanton mistress a chance to reconsider; but he got the quirt for his pains.

The wiry beast was almost on the brink—he had hardly a moment to coil, but he shot across the gulf with a convulsive leap that carried his rider over, with nothing—absolutely nothing—to spare. He made the farther side with three feet—the left hind foot slumped on the edge of the bank and down went the leg!

Kate never forgot that moment. It was thirty feet, sheer, to the rocks below. And it would have been poor Dick on top of his foolish mistress. Kate really expected nothing better until with a terrific snort the pony scrambled to safety. What a horse will do for thankless man!

The frightened girl hardly dared look around even after she recovered her breath—which she thought would never come back. On the sudden spurt, her companion had been a little behind her. She presumed that the dun with commendable sense had refused the jump for when she glanced half way around—she was afraid her white face would betray her little panic—his rider was galloping him back in an easy circle and heading him the second time for the formidable break. This time, too, the rider was letting his reluctant beast understand who was master; and with enough of authority to force him and enough consideration to give him confidence, he jumped him over the gap as Kate should have jumped Dick—with room and to spare.

Her cheeks were burning again: "You did it much better," she said coolly, as he joined her. "Dick is getting slow."

"That wasn't Dick's fault," he remarked, for he appeared a trifle upset himself by the misadventure. "It was yours," he added bluntly.

Her only answer was to push ahead. She could at least keep the man busy—though she felt somewhat diffident about offering him further lessons in horsemanship.

The trail led up a commanding ridge and her companion scanned the valley lying to the north beyond. Through it they could trace a slender water course. "This should be not far from Falling Wall Canyon," he suggested. "And that creek must be a branch of the Sinking Water."

"Oh, I've heard about that wonderful canyon," she exclaimed. "Tell me about it."

"It breaks through that near range," he said, pointing. "There are elk in the park across the next divide. There isn't a great deal to tell about the canyon—it's just there, that's about all."

"How deep is it?"

"Three to six hundred feet."

"Straight up and down, they say."

"As near as the Lord could make it."

"Is there any way of getting to the bottom of it?"

"The easiest way would be to jump from the rim."

"Oh, could we see it?"

"Not tonight unless you want to camp out; and we're not exactly fixed for that. Up close to the old mine bridge there's a trail into the canyon. It's pretty stiff. A sailor would warp his way down with a rope."

The horses had halted by consent and their riders were contemplating the mountains and valleys surrounding them. Her companion took advantage of the pause to dismount and inspect the legs of the ponies—and while he examined those of his own horse for politeness' sake—he looked more closely at Dick's.

"He must have got a wrench in that jump," confessed Kate, watching. "We were riding pretty fast, weren't we?"

"For that kind of country, yes. I thought for a while," added her companion, in a dry way, "you must be showing me how to ride. Then I figured out you must be showing me how you could ride."

Kate stared straight ahead: "How absurd!" she exclaimed with cold contempt for his conclusions, yet feeble in her sarcasm against his penetration.

"All I want to say is," he continued, remounting, "that I see you can ride. You don't have to cover much country to prove that. You ride like a Western girl—and talk like an Eastern girl. Which are you?"

She unfeelingly closed all inquiries: "Both," she answered indifferently. "Let's head for the bottoms; about two miles from here there's a spring—good water."

He looked skeptical: "If you can show me good water near here, I'll be learning something. I didn't know there was a water hole within ten miles—but I don't know this lower country as well as my own."

"What is your own?"

He pointed to the Northeast to where a range of snow-capped peaks rose above from the desert: "Those are the Lodge Pole mountains. That's where the Falling Wall river begins—where you see that snow. It circles clear around the range, crosses the Reservation to the West and opens South into a high basin—that's my country—the Falling Wall. Then the river cuts out of there through the canyon we're talking about and gets away to the West again." Coming a step nearer to her he pointed again: "Now look close to the left of that strip of timber. You can just see a break above it—that's the high point of the canyon. A long time ago there was a mining camp in those mountains—Horsehead—they started to build a railroad up there—did a lot of grading and put in the abutments for a bridge across the canyon. Before they got the road built the camp played out; they never finished it. All that country below there is the Falling Wall."

"Are they all thieves and outlaws over there?"

He started a little in spite of himself and took his time to reply: "It must have been a thief or an outlaw that put that idea in your head," he observed finally.

"Oh, no, it was Tom Stone."

His expression changed into contempt: "I didn't need but one guess."

Kate asked him to explain, but he did not and she was not in a position to object. She found the trail to the spring. Van Horn had taken her there once. Dismounting at a little distance, the two made their way down to it. "Score one for the rough rider," said her companion after he had drunk. "And I thought I knew every drop of water in this country."



He produced the sandwiches and they sat down. Kate could judge the hour of the day only from the sun and dared not mention "time." Her companion asked as many questions as he could think of, and she managed her answers with a minimum of information. And she asked herself one question that did not occur to him: "Why was she not frightened to death?" It must have been the duel she felt she was fighting with this man to keep him away from her father that banished her fears. In the saddle, events moved too rapidly to admit of extended misgivings, and she had purposely assigned to him the slower horse.

It was only when they were taking the almost enforced moment of rest together at the water hole—which might as well have been a thousand miles from help as ten—that little chills did run up and down her back. As for her companion, it was useless to try to read him from his face or manner; if she were playing one game, he might well be playing another as far as anything she could gather from his features was concerned. But she had to confess there was never a look in his eyes—when she did look into them—that frightened her.

And as she cautiously regarded him munching a sandwich and keeping his own eyes rather away from than on her own, she asked herself whether she had undertaken too much, and whether this sphinx-like face might hide danger for her. She at least knew it was far from being possible to tell by looking at the outside of a man's head what might be going on inside. Only the plight of her father's affairs had seemed to justify her; even this did not seem to now, but it was too late to wish herself out of it. Besides—for most extraordinary notions will come into foolish girls' minds—was she not in the company of a great Federal court; and shouldn't she feel safe on that score?

He certainly ate slowly. His appetite was astonishing. He invited Kate more than once to continue eating with him, but her first hasty sandwich and her latent uneasiness had more than satisfied her.

"It must be very exciting, to be a deputy marshal," she remarked once, when she could think of no other earthly thing to say, and was still afraid they might get back in time for the train.

"It must be sometimes."

"How does it feel to be chasing men all the time?"

"I've had more experience myself in getting chased."

She attempted to laugh: "Do they ever chase deputy marshals?"

He took up, gravely, the last sandwich: "I expect they do once in a while."

"You ought to know, I should think."

He offered her the sandwich and on her refusal bit into it: "No," he returned simply, "for I'm not a deputy marshal."

Kate was stunned: "Why, you said you were! What do you mean?" she demanded when she could speak. He ate so deliberately! She thought he never would finish his mouthful and answer: "I mean—not regularly. Once or twice I've been deputized to serve papers—when the job went begging. Farrell Kennedy, the marshal at Medicine Bend, is a friend of mine—that's the nearest I come to working for him."

"But if you're not a deputy marshal, what are you?" demanded Kate, uneasily.

His face reflected the suspicion of a smile: "I guess the answer to that would depend a good deal on who told the story."

"I could hardly imagine anyone chasing you," she continued, not knowing in her confusion what to say.

"You ought to see me run sometime," he returned.

"Oh, there's a prairie dog!" she exclaimed. She was looking to the farther side of the water hole. "See? Over there by that bush! I wonder if I could hit it?" She put her hand to her scabbard: "I've lost my revolver!" She looked at him blankly. "Had it when you started, didn't you?" inquired her companion, undisturbed. Her hand rested on the empty scabbard in dismay: "I must have lost it on the way."

1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse