BY B. M. BOWER
Author of "Chip, of the Flying U," etc.
With Four Illustrations BY STANLEY L. WOOD
CHAPTER I. THE ARRIVAL OF VAL II. WELL-MEANT ADVICE III. A LADY IN A TEMPER IV. THE "SHIVAREE" V. COLD SPRING RANCH VI. MANLEY'S FIRE GUARD VII. VAL'S NEW DUTIES VIII. THE PRAIRIE FIRE IX. KENT TO THE RESCUE X. DESOLATION XI. VAL'S AWAKENING XII. A LESSON IN FORGIVENESS XIII. ARLINE GIVES A DANCE XIV. A WEDDING PRESENT XV. A COMPACT XVI. MANLEY'S NEW TACTICS XVII. VAL BECOMES AN AUTHOR XVIII. VAL'S DISCOVERY XIX. KENT'S CONFESSION XX. A BLOTCHED BRAND XXI. VAL DECIDES XXII. A FRIEND IN NEED XXIII. CAUGHT! XXIV. RETRIBUTION
List of Illustrations
As he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbled with the saddle string
He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his crowd
"Little woman, listen here," he said. "You're playing hard luck, and I know it"
To draw the red hot spur across the fresh VP did not take long
THE ARRIVAL OF VAL
In northern Montana there lies a great, lonely stretch of prairie land, gashed deep where flows the Missouri. Indeed, there are many such—big, impassive, impressive in their very loneliness, in summer given over to the winds and the meadow larks and to the shadows fleeing always over the hilltops. Wild range cattle feed there and grow sleek and fat for the fall shipping of beef. At night the coyotes yap quaveringly and prowl abroad after the long-eared jack rabbits, which bounce away at their hunger-driven approach. In winter it is not good to be there; even the beasts shrink then from the bleak, level reaches, and shun the still bleaker heights.
But men will live anywhere if by so doing there is money to be gained, and so a town snuggled up against the northern rim of the bench land, where the bleakness was softened a bit by the sheltering hills, and a willow-fringed creek with wild rosebushes and chokecherries made a vivid green background for the meager huddle of little, unpainted buildings.
To the passengers on the through trains which watered at the red tank near the creek, the place looked crudely picturesque—interesting, so long as one was not compelled to live there and could retain a perfectly impersonal viewpoint. After five or ten minutes spent hi watching curiously the one little street, with the long hitching poles planted firmly and frequently down both sides—usually within a very few steps of a saloon door—and the horses nodding and stamping at the flies, and the loitering figures that appeared now and then in desultory fashion, many of them imagined that they understood the West and sympathized with it, and appreciated its bigness and its freedom from conventions.
One slim young woman had just told the thin-faced school teacher on a vacation, with whom she had formed one of those evanescent traveling acquaintances, that she already knew the West, from instinct and from Manley's letters. She loved it, she said, because Manley loved it, and because it was to be her home, and because it was so big and so free. Out here one could think and grow and really live, she declared, with enthusiasm. Manley had lived here for three years, and his letters, she told the thin-faced teacher, were an education in themselves.
The teacher had already learned that the slim young woman, with the yellow-brown hair and yellow-brown eyes to match, was going to marry Manley—she had forgotten his other name, though the young woman had mentioned it—and would live on a ranch, a cattle ranch. She smiled with somewhat wistful sympathy, and hoped the young woman would be happy; and the young woman waved her hand, with the glove only half pulled on, toward the shadow-dappled prairie and the willow-fringed creek, and the hills beyond.
"Happy!" she echoed joyously. "Could one be anything else, in such a country? And then—you don't know Manley, you see. It's horribly bad form, and undignified and all that, to prate of one's private affairs, but I just can't help bubbling over. I'm not looking for heaven, and I expect to have plenty of bumpy places in the trail—trail is anything that you travel over, out here; Manley has coached me faithfully—but I'm going to be happy. My mind is quite made up. Well, good-by—I'm so glad you happened to be on this train, and I wish I might meet you again. Isn't it a funny little depot? Oh, yes—thank you! I almost forgot that umbrella, and I might need it. Yes, I'll write to you—I should hate to drop out of your mind completely. Address me Mrs. Manley Fleetwood, Hope, Montana. Good-by—I wish—"
She trailed off down the aisle with eyes shining, in the wake of the grinning porter. She hurried down the steps, glanced hastily along the platform, up at the car window where the faded little school teacher was smiling wearily down at her, waved her hand, threw a dainty little kiss, nodded a gay farewell, smiled vaguely at the conductor, who had been respectfully pleasant to her—and then she was looking at the rear platform of the receding train mechanically, not yet quite realizing why it was that her heart went heavy so suddenly. She turned then and looked about her in a surprised, inquiring fashion. Manley, it would seem, was not at hand to welcome her. She had expected his face to be the first she looked upon in that town, but she tried not to be greatly perturbed at his absence; so many things may detain one.
At that moment a young fellow, whose clothes emphatically proclaimed him a cowboy, came diffidently up to her, tilted his hat backward an inch or so, and left it that way, thereby unconsciously giving himself an air of candor which should have been reassuring.
"Fleetwood was detained. You were expecting to—you're the lady he was expecting, aren't you?"
She had been looking questioningly at her violin box and two trunks standing on their ends farther down the platform, and she smiled vaguely without glancing at him.
"Yes. I hope he isn't sick, or—"
"I'll take you over to the hotel, and go tell him you're here," he volunteered, somewhat curtly, and picked up her bag.
"Oh, thank you." This time her eyes grazed his face inattentively. She followed him down the rough steps of planking and up an extremely dusty road—one could scarcely call it a street—to an uninviting building with crooked windows and a high, false front of unpainted boards.
The young fellow opened a sagging door, let her pass into a narrow hallway, and from there into a stuffy, hopelessly conventional fifth-rate parlor, handed her the bag, and departed with another tilt of the hat which placed it at a different angle. The sentence meant for farewell she did not catch, for she was staring at a wooden-faced portrait upon an easel, the portrait of a man with a drooping mustache, and porky cheeks, and dead-looking eyes.
"And I expected bearskin rugs, and antlers on the walls, and big fireplaces!" she remarked aloud, and sighed. Then she turned and pulled aside a coarse curtain of dusty, machine-made lace, and looked after her guide. He was just disappearing into a saloon across the street, and she dropped the curtain precipitately, as if she were ashamed of spying. "Oh, well—I've heard all cowboys are more or less intemperate," she excused, again aloud.
She sat down upon an atrocious red plush chair, and wrinkled her nose spitefully at the porky-cheeked portrait. "I suppose you're the proprietor," she accused, "or else the proprietor's son. I wish you wouldn't squint like that. If I have to stop here longer than ten minutes, I shall certainly turn you face to the wall." Whereupon, with another grimace, she turned her back upon it and looked out of the window. Then she stood up impatiently, looked at her watch, and sat down again upon the red plush chair.
"He didn't tell me whether Manley is sick," she said suddenly, with some resentment. "He was awfully abrupt in his manner. Oh, you—" She rose, picked up an old newspaper from the marble-topped table with uncertain legs, and spread it ungently over the portrait upon the easel. Then she went to the window and looked out again. "I feel perfectly sure that cowboy went and got drunk immediately," she complained, drumming pettishly upon the glass. "And I don't suppose he told Manley at all."
The cowboy was innocent of the charge, however, and he was doing his energetic best to tell Manley. He had gone straight through the saloon and into the small room behind, where a man lay sprawled upon a bed in one corner. He was asleep, and his clothes were wrinkled as if he had lain there long. His head rested upon his folded arms, and he was snoring loudly. The young fellow went up and took him roughly by the shoulder.
"Here! I thought I told you to straighten up," he cried disgustedly. "Come alive! The train's come and gone, and your girl's waiting for you over to the hotel. D' you hear?"
"Uh-huh!" The man opened one eye, grunted, and closed it again.
The other yanked him half off the bed, and swore. This brought both eyes open, glassy with whisky and sleep. He sat wobbling upon the edge of the bed, staring stupidly.
"Can't you get anything through you?" his tormentor exclaimed. "You want your girl to find out you're drunk? You got the license in your pocket. You're supposed to get spliced this evening—and look at you!" He turned and went out to the bartender.
"Why didn't you pour that coffee into him, like I told you?" he demanded. "We've got to get him steady on his pins somehow!"
The bartender was sprawled half over the bar, apathetically reading the sporting news of a torn Sunday edition of an Eastern paper. He looked up from under his eyebrows and grunted.
"How you going to pour coffee down a man that lays flat on his belly and won't open his mouth?" he inquired, in an injured tone. "Sleep's all he needs, anyway. He'll be all right by morning."
The other snorted dissent. "He'll be all right by dark—or he'll feel a whole lot worse," he promised grimly. "Dig up some ice. And a good jolt of bromo, if you've got it—and a towel or two."
The bartender wearily pushed the paper to one side, reached languidly under the bar, and laid hold of a round blue bottle. Yawning uninterestedly, he poured a double portion of the white crystals into a glass, half filled another under the faucet of the water cooler, and held them out.
"Dump that into him, then," he advised. "It'll help some, if you get it down. What's the sweat to get him married off to-day? Won't the girl wait?"
"I never asked her. You pound up some ice and bring it in, will you?" The volunteer nurse kicked open the door into the little room and went in, hastily pouring the bromo seltzer from one glass to the other to keep it from foaming out of all bounds. His patient was still sitting upon the edge of the bed where he had left him, slumped forward with his head in his hands. He looked up stupidly, his eyes bloodshot and swollen of lid.
"'S the train come in yet?" he asked thickly. "'S you, is it, Kent?"
"The train's come, and your girl is waiting for you at the hotel. Here, throw this into you—and for God's sake, brace up! You make me tired. Drink her down quick—the foam's good for you. Here, you take the stuff in the bottom, too. Got it? Take off your coat, so I can get at you. You don't look much like getting married, and that's no josh."
Fleetwood shook his head with drunken gravity, and groaned. "I ought to be killed. Drunk to-day!" He sagged forward again, and seemed disposed to shed tears. "She'll never forgive me; she—"
Kent jerked him to his feet peremptorily. "Aw, look here! I'm trying to sober you up. You've got to do your part—see? Here's some ice in a towel—you get it on your head. Open up your shirt, so I can bathe your chest. Don't do any good to blubber around about it. Your girl can't hear you, and Jim and I ain't sympathetic. Set down in this chair, where we can get at you." He enforced his command with some vigor, and Fleetwood groaned again. But he shed no more tears, and he grew momentarily more lucid, as the treatment took effect.
The tears were being shed in the stuffy little hotel parlor. The young woman looked often at her watch, went into the hallway, and opened the outer door several times, meditating a search of the town, and drew back always with a timid fluttering of heart because it was all so crude and strange, and the saloons so numerous and terrifying in their very bald simplicity.
She was worried about Manley, and she wished that cowboy would come out of the saloon and bring her lover to her. She had never dreamed of being treated in this way. No one came near her—and she had secretly expected to cause something of a flutter in this little town they called Hope.
Surely, young girls from the East, come out to get married to their sweethearts, weren't so numerous that they should be ignored. If there were other people in the hotel, they did not manifest their presence, save by disquieting noises muffled by intervening partitions.
She grew thirsty, but she hesitated to explore the depths of this dreary abode, in fear of worse horrors than the parlor furniture, and all the places of refreshment which she could see from the window or the door looked terribly masculine and unmoral, and as if they did not know there existed such things as ice cream, or soda, or sherbet.
It was after an hour of this that the tears came, which is saying a good deal for her courage. It seemed to her then that Manley must be dead. What else could keep him so long away from her, after three years of impassioned longing written twice a week with punctilious regularity?
He knew that she was coming. She had telegraphed from St. Paul, and had received a joyful reply, lavishly expressed in seventeen words instead of the ten-word limit. And they were to have been married immediately upon her arrival.
That cowboy had known she was coming; he must also have known why Manley did not meet her, and she wished futilely that she had questioned him, instead of walking beside him without a word. He should have explained. He would have explained if he had not been so very anxious to get inside that saloon and get drunk.
She had always heard that cowboys were chivalrous, and brave, and fascinating in their picturesque dare-deviltry, but from the lone specimen which she had met she could not see that they possessed any of those qualities. If all cowboys were like that, she hoped that she would not be compelled to meet any of them. And why didn't Manley come?
It was then that an inner door—a door which she had wanted to open, but had lacked courage—squeaked upon its hinges, and an ill-kept bundle of hair was thrust in, topping a weather-beaten face and a scrawny little body. Two faded, inquisitive eyes looked her over, and the woman sidled in, somewhat abashed, but too curious to remain outside.
"Oh yes!" She seemed to be answering some inner question. "I didn't know you was here." She went over and removed the newspaper from the portrait. "That breed girl of mine ain't got the least idea of how to straighten up a room," she observed complainingly. "I guess she thinks this picture was made to hang things on. I'll have to round her up again and tell her a few things. This is my first husband. He was in politics and got beat, and so he killed himself. He couldn't stand to have folks give him the laugh." She spoke with pride. "He was a real handsome man, don't you think? You mighta took off the paper; it didn't belong there, and he does brighten up the room. A good picture is real company, seems to me. When my old man gets on the rampage till I can't stand it no longer, I come in here and set, and look at Walt. 'T ain't every man that's got nerve to kill himself—with a shotgun. It was turrible! He took and tied a string to the trigger—"
The landlady stopped short and stared at her. "What? Oh, I won't go into details—it was awful messy, and that's a fact. I didn't git over it for a couple of months. He coulda killed himself with a six-shooter; it's always been a mystery why he dug up that old shotgun, but he did. I always thought he wanted to show his nerve." She sighed, and drew her fingers across her eyes. "I don't s'pose I ever will git over it," she added complacently. "It was a turrible shock."
"Do you know," the girl began desperately, "if Mr. Manley Fleetwood is in town? I expected him to meet me at the train."
"Oh! I kinda thought you was Man Fleetwood's girl. My name's Hawley. You going to be married to-night, ain't you?"
"I—I haven't seen Mr. Fleetwood yet," hesitated the girl, and her eyes filled again with tears. "I'm afraid something may have happened to him. He—"
Mrs. Hawley glimpsed the tears, and instantly became motherly in her manner. She even went up and patted the girl on the shoulder.
"There, now, don't you worry none. Man's all right; I seen him at dinner time. He was—" She stopped short, looked keenly at the delicate face, and at the yellow-brown eyes which gazed back at her, innocent of evil, trusting, wistful. "He spoke about your coming, and said he'd want the use of the parlor this evening, for the wedding. I had an idea you was coming on the six-twenty train. Maybe he thought so, too. I never heard you come in—I was busy frying doughnuts in the kitchen—and I just happened to come in here after something. You'd oughta rapped on that door. Then I'd 'a' known you was here. I'll go and have my old man hunt him up. He must be around town somewheres. Like as not he'll meet the six-twenty, expecting you to be on it."
She smiled reassuringly as she turned to the inner door.
"You take off your hat and jacket, and pretty soon I'll show you up to a room. I'll have to round up my old man first—and that's liable to take time." She turned her eyes quizzically to the porky-cheeked portrait. "You jest let Walt keep you company till I get back. He was real good company when he was livin'."
She smiled again and went out briskly, came back, and stood with her hand upon the cracked doorknob.
"I clean forgot your name," she hinted. "Man told me, at dinner time, but I'm no good on earth at remembering names till after I've seen the person it belongs to."
"Valeria Peyson—Val, they call me usually, at home." The homesickness of the girl shone in her misty eyes, haunted her voice. Mrs. Hawley read it, and spoke more briskly than she would otherwise have done.
"Well, we're plumb strangers, but we ain't going to stay that way, because every time you come to town you'll have to stop here; there ain't any other place to stop. And I'm going to start right in calling you Val. We don't use no ceremony with folk's names, out here. Val's a real nice name, short and easy to say. Mine's Arline. You can call me by it if you want to. I don't let everybody—so many wants to cut it down to Leen, and I won't stand for that; I'm lean enough, without havin' it throwed up to me. We might jest as well start in the way we're likely to keep it up, and you won't feel so much like a stranger.
"I'm awful glad you're going to settle here—there ain't so awful many women in the country; we have to rake and scrape to git enough for three sets when we have a dance—and more likely we can't make out more 'n two. D' you dance? Somebody said they seen a fiddle box down to the depot, with a couple of big trunks; d' you play the fiddle?"
"A little," Valeria smiled faintly.
"Well, that'll come in awful handy at dances. We'd have 'em real often in the winter if it wasn't such a job to git music. Well, I got too much to do to be standin' here talkin'. I have to keep right after that breed girl all the time, or she won't do nothing. I'll git my old man after your fellow right away. Jest make yourself to home, and anything you want ask for it in the kitchen." She smiled in friendly fashion and closed the door with a little slam to make sure that it latched.
Valeria stood for a moment with her hands hanging straight at her sides, staring absently at the door. Then she glanced at Walt, staring wooden-faced from his gilt frame upon his gilt easel, and shivered. She pushed the red plush chair as far away from him as possible, sat down with her back to the picture, and immediately felt his dull, black eyes boring into her back.
"What a fool I must be!" she said aloud, glancing reluctantly over her shoulder at the portrait. She got up resolutely, placed the chair where it had stood before, and stared deliberately at Walt, as if she would prove how little she cared. But in a moment more she was crying dismally.
Kent Burnett, bearing over his arm a coat newly pressed in the Delmonico restaurant, dodged in at the back door of the saloon, threw the coat down upon the tousled bed, and pushed back his hat with a gesture of relief at an onerous duty well performed.
"I had one hell of a time," he announced plaintively, "and that Chink will likely try to poison me if I eat over there, after this—but I got her ironed, all right. Get into it, Man, and chase yourself over there to the hotel. Got a clean collar? That one's all-over coffee."
Fleetwood stifled a groan, reached into a trousers pocket, and brought up a dollar. "Get me one at the store, will you, Kent? Fifteen and a half—and a tie, if they've got any that's decent. And hurry! Such a triple-three-star fool as I am ought to be taken out and shot."
He went on cursing himself audibly and bitterly, even after Kent had hurried out. He was sober now—was Manley Fleetwood—sober and self-condemnatory and penitent. His head ached splittingly; his eyes were heavy-lidded and bloodshot, and his hands trembled so that he could scarcely button his coat. But he was sober. He did not even carry the odor of whisky upon his breath or his person; for Kent had been very thoughtful and very thorough. He had compelled his patient to crunch and swallow many nauseous tablets of "whisky killer," and he had sprinkled his clothes liberally with Jockey Club; Fleetwood, therefore, while he emanated odors in plenty, carried about him none of the aroma properly belonging to intoxication.
In ten minutes Kent was back, with a celluloid collar and two ties of questionable taste. Manley just glanced at them, waved them away with gloomy finality, and swore.
"They're just about the limit, and that's no dream," sympathized Kent, "but they're clean, and they don't look like they'd been slept in for a month. You've got to put 'em on—by George, I sized up the layout in both those imitation stores, and I drew the highest in the deck. And for the Lord's sake, get a move on. Here, I'll button it for you."
Behind Fleetwood's back, when collar and tie were in place, Kent grinned and lowered an eyelid at Jim, who put his head in from the saloon to see how far the sobering had progressed.
"You look fine!" he encouraged heartily. "That green-and-blue tie's just what you need to set you off. And the collar sure is shiny and nice—your girl will be plumb dazzled. She won't see anything wrong—believe me. Now, run along and get married. Here, you better sneak out the back way; if she happened to be looking out, she'd likely wonder what you were doing, coming out of a saloon. Duck out past the coal shed and cut into the street by Brinberg's. Tell her you're sick—got a sick headache. Your looks'll swear it's the truth. Hike!" He opened the door and pushed Fleetwood out, watched him out of sight around the corner of Brinberg's store, and turned back into the close-smelling little room.
"Do you know," he remarked to Jim, "I never thought of it before, but I've been playing a low-down trick on that poor girl. I kinda wish now I'd put her next, and given her a chance to draw outa the game if she wanted to. It's stacking the deck on her, if you ask me!" He pushed his hat back upon his head, gave his shoulders a twist of dissatisfaction, and told Jim to dig up some Eastern beer; drank it meditatively, and set down the glass with some force.
"Yes, sir," he said disgustedly, "darn my fool soul, I stacked the deck on that girl—and she looked to be real nice. Kinda innocent and trusting, like she hasn't found out yet how rotten mean men critters can be." He took the bottle and poured himself another glass. "She's sure due to wise up a lot," he added grimly.
"You bet your sweet life!" Jim agreed, and then he reconsidered. "Still, I dunno; Man ain't so worse. He ain't what you can call a real booze fighter. This here's what I'd call an accidental jag; got it in the exuberance of the joyful moment when he knew his girl was coming. He'll likely straighten up and be all right. He—" Jim broke off there and looked to see who had opened the door.
"Hello, Polly," he greeted carelessly.
The man came forward, grinning skinnily. Polycarp Jenks was the outrageous name of him. He was under the average height, and he was lean to the point of emaciation. His mouth was absolutely curveless—a straight gash across his face; a gash which simply stopped short without any tapering or any turn at the corners, when it had reached as far as was decent. His nose was also straight and high, and owned no perceptible slope; indeed, it seemed merely a pendant attached to his forehead, and its upper termination was indefinite, except that somewhere between his eyebrows one felt impelled to consider it forehead rather than nose. His eyes also were rather long and narrow, like buttonholes cut to match the mouth. When he grinned his face appeared to break up into splinters.
He was intensely proud of his name, and his pleasure was almost pathetic when one pronounced it without curtailment in his presence. His skinniness was also a matter of pride. And when you realize that he was an indefatigable gossip, and seemed always to be riding at large, gathering or imparting trivial news, you should know fairly well Polycarp Jenks.
"I see Man Fleetwood's might' near sober enough to git married," Polycarp began, coming up to the two and leaning a sharp elbow upon the bar beside Kent. "By granny, gitting married'd sober anybody! Dinner time he was so drunk he couldn't find his mouth. I met him up here a little ways just now, and he was so sober he remembered to pay me that ten I lent him t' other day—he-he! Open up a bottle of pop, James.
"His girl's been might' near crying her eyes out, 'cause he didn't show up. Mis' Hawley says she looked like she was due at a funeral 'stid of a weddin'. 'Clined to be stuck up, accordin' to Mis' Hawley—shied at hearin' about Walt—he-he! I'll bet there ain't been a transient to that hotel in the last five year, man or woman, that ain't had to hear about Walt and the shotgun—Pop's all right on a hot day, you bet!
"She's got two trunks and a fiddle over to the depot—don't see how 'n the world Man's going to git 'em out to the ranch; they're might' near as big as claim shacks, both of 'em. Time she gits 'em into Man's shack she'll have to go outside every time she wants to turn around—he-he! By granny—two trunks, to one woman! Have some pop, Kenneth, on me.
"The boys are talkin' about a shivaree t'-night. On the quiet, y' know. Some of 'em's workin' on a horse fiddle now, over in the lumber yard. Wanted me to play a coal-oil can, but I dunno. I'm gittin' a leetle old for sech doings. Keeps you up nights too much. Man had any sense, he'd marry and pull outa town. 'Bout fifteen or twenty in the bunch, and a string of cans and irons to reach clean across the street. By granny, I'm going to plug m' ears good with cotton when it comes off—he-he! 'Nother bottle of pop, James."
"Who's running the show, Polycarp?" Kent asked, accepting the glass of soda because he disliked to offend. "Funny I didn't hear about it."
Polycarp twisted his slit of a mouth knowingly, and closed one slit of an eye to assist the facial elucidation.
"Ain't funny—not when I tell you Fred De Garmo's handing out the invites, and he sure aims to have plenty of excitement—he-he! Betcher Manley won't be able to set on the wagon seat an' hold the lines t'-morrow—not if he comes out when he's called and does the thing proper—he-he! An' if he don't show up, they aim to jest about pull the old shebang down over his ears. Hope'll think it's the day of judgment, sure—he-he! Reckon I might's well git in on the fun—they won't be no sleepin' within ten mile of the place, nohow, and a feller always sees the joke better when he's lendin' a hand. Too bad you an' Fred's on the outs, Kenneth."
"Oh, I don't know—it suits me fine," Kent declared easily, setting down his glass with a sigh of relief; he hated "pop."
"What's it all about, anyway?" quizzed Polycarp, hungering for the details which had thus far been denied him. "De Garmo sees red whenever anybody mentions your name, Kenneth—but I never did hear no particulars."
"No?" Kent was turning toward the door. "Well, you see, Fred claims he can holler louder than I can, and I say he can't." He opened the door and calmly departed, leaving Polycarp looking exceedingly foolish and a bit angry.
Straight to the hotel, without any pretense at disguising his destination, marched Kent. He went into the office—which was really a saloon—invited Hawley to drink with him, and then wondered audibly if he could beg some pie from Mrs. Hawley.
"Supper'll be ready in a few minutes," Hawley informed him, glancing up at the round, dust-covered clock screwed to the wall.
"I don't want supper—I want pie," Kent retorted, and opened a door which led into the hallway. He went down the narrow passage to another door, opened it without ceremony, and was assailed by the odor of many things—the odor which spoke plainly of supper, or some other assortment of food. No one was in sight, so he entered the dining room boldly, stepped to another door, tapped very lightly upon it, and went in. By this somewhat roundabout method he invaded the parlor.
Manley Fleetwood was lying upon an extremely uncomfortable couch, of the kind which is called a sofa. He had a lace-edged handkerchief folded upon his brow, and upon his face was an expression of conscious unworthiness which struck Kent as being extremely humorous. He grinned understandingly and Manley flushed—also understandingly. Valeria hastily released Manley's hand and looked very prim and a bit haughty, as she regarded the intruder from the red plush chair, pulled close to the couch.
"Mr. Fleetwood's head is very bad yet," she informed Kent coldly. "I really do not think he ought to see—anybody."
Kent tapped his hat gently against his leg and faced her unflinchingly, quite unconscious of the fact that she regarded him as a dissolute, drunken cowboy with whom Manley ought not to associate.
"That's too bad." His eyes failed to drop guiltily before hers, but continued to regard her calmly. "I'm only going to stay a minute. I came to tell you that there's a scheme to raise—to 'shivaree' you two, tonight. I thought you might want to pull out, along about dark."
Manley looked up at him inquiringly with the eye which was not covered by the lace-edged handkerchief. Valeria seemed startled, just at first. Then she gave Kent a little shock of surprise.
"I have read about such things. A charivari, even out here in this uncivilized section of the country, can hardly be dangerous. I really do not think we care to run away, thank you." Her lip curled unmistakably. "Mr. Fleetwood is suffering from a sick headache. He needs rest—not a cowardly night ride."
Naturally Kent admired the spirit she showed, in spite of that eloquent lip, the scorn of which seemed aimed directly at him. But he still faced her steadily.
"Sure. But if I had a headache—like that—I'd certainly burn the earth getting outa town to-night. Shivarees"—he stuck stubbornly to his own way of saying it—"are bad for the head. They aren't what you could call silent—not out here in this uncivilized section of the country. They're plumb—" He hesitated for just a fraction of a second, and his resentment of her tone melted into a twinkle of the eyes. "They've got fifty coal-oil cans strung with irons on a rope, and there'll be about ninety-five six-shooters popping, and eight or ten horse-fiddles, and they'll all be yelling to beat four of a kind. They're going," he said quite gravely, "to play the full orchestra. And I don't believe," he added ironically, "it's going to help Mr. Fleetwood's head any."
Valeria looked at him doubtingly with steady, amber-colored eyes before she turned solicitously to readjust the lace-edged handkerchief. Kent seized the opportunity to stare fixedly at Fleetwood and jerk his head meaningly backward, but when, warned by Manley's changing expression, she glanced suspiciously over her shoulder, Kent was standing quietly by the door with his hat in his hand, gazing absently at Walt in his gilt-edged frame upon the gilt easel, and waiting, evidently, for their decision.
"I shall tell them that Mr. Fleetwood is sick—that he has a horrible headache, and mustn't be disturbed."
Kent forgot himself so far as to cough slightly behind his hand. Valeria's eyes sparkled.
"Even out here," she went on cuttingly, "there must be some men who are gentlemen!"
Kent refrained from looking at her, but the blood crept darkly into his tanned cheeks. Evidently she "had it in for him," but he could not see why. He wondered swiftly if she blamed him for Manley's condition.
Fleetwood suddenly sat up, spilling the handkerchief to the floor. When Valeria essayed to push him back he put her hand gently away. He rose and came over to Kent.
"Is this straight goods?" he demanded. "Why don't you stop it?"
"Fred De Garmo's running this show. My influence wouldn't go as far—"
Fleetwood turned to the girl, and his manner was masterful. "I'm going out with Kent—oh, Val, this is Mr. Burnett. Kent, Miss Peyson. I forgot you two aren't acquainted."
From Valeria's manner, they were in no danger of becoming friends. Her acknowledgment was barely perceptible. Kent bowed stiffly.
"I'm going to see about this, Val," continued Fleetwood. "Oh, my head's better—a lot better, really. Maybe we'd better leave town—"
"If your head is better, I don't see why we need run away from a lot of silly noise," Valeria interposed, with merciless logic. "They'll think we're awful cowards."
"Well, I'll try and find out—I won't be gone a minute, dear." After that word, spoken before another, he appeared to be in great haste, and pushed Kent rather unceremoniously through the door. In the dining room, Kent diplomatically included the landlady in the conference, by a gesture of much mystery bringing her in from the kitchen, where she had been curiously peeping out at them.
"Got to let her in," he whispered to Manley, "to keep her face closed."
They murmured together for five minutes. Kent seemed to meet with some opposition from Fleetwood—an aftermath of Valeria's objections to flight—and became brutally direct.
"Go ahead—do as you please," he said roughly. "But you know that bunch. You'll have to show up, and you'll have to set 'em up, and—aw, thunder! By morning you'll be plumb laid out. You'll be headed into one of your four-day jags, and you know it. I was thinking of the girl—but if you don't care, I guess it's none of my funeral. Go to it—but darned if I'd want to start my honeymoon out like that!"
Fleetwood weakened, but still he hesitated. "If I didn't show up—" he began hopefully. But Kent wittered him with a look.
"That bunch will be two-thirds full before they start out. If you don't show up, they'll go up and haul you outa bed—hell, Man! You'd likely start in to kill somebody off. Fred De Garmo don't love you much better than he loves me. You know what him and his friends would do then, I should think." He stopped, and seemed to consider briefly a plan, but shook his head over it. "I could round up a bunch and stand 'em off, maybe—but we'd be shooting each other up, first rattle of the box. It's a whole lot easier for you to get outa town."
"I'll tell somebody you got the bridal chamber," hissed Arline, in a very loud whisper. "That's number two, in front. I can keep a light going and pass back 'n' forth once in a while, to look like you're there. That'll fool 'em good. They'll wait till the light's been out quite a while before they start in. You go ahead and git married at seven, jest as you was going to—and if Kent'll have the team ready somewheres, I can easy sneak you out the back way."
"I couldn't get the team out of town without giving the whole deal away," Kent objected. "You'll have to go horseback.".
"Val can't ride," Fleetwood stated, as if that settled the matter.
"Damn it, she's got to ride!" snapped Kent, losing patience. "Unless you want to stay and go on a toot that'll last a week, most likely."
"Val belongs to the W.C.T.U.," shrugged Fleetwood. "She'd never—"
"Well, it's that or have a fight on your hands you maybe can't handle. I don't see any sense in haggling about going, now you know what to expect. But, of course," he added, with some acrimony, "it's your own business. I don't know what the dickens I'm getting all worked up over it for. Suit yourself." He turned toward the door.
"She could ride my Mollie—and I got a sidesaddle hanging up in the coal shed. She could use that, or a stock saddle, either one," planned Mrs. Hawley anxiously. "You better pull out, Man."
"Hold on, Kent! Don't rush off—we'll go," Fleetwood surrendered. "Val won't like it, but I'll explain as well as I can, without—Say! you stay and see us married, won't you? It's at seven, and—"
Kent's fingers curled around the doorknob. "No, thanks. Weddings and funerals are two bunches of trouble I always ride 'way around. Time enough when you've got to be it. Along about nine o'clock you try and get out to the stockyards without letting the whole town see you go, and I'll have the horses there; just beyond the wings, by that pile of ties. You know the place. I'll wait there till ten, and not a minute longer. That'll give you an hour, and you won't need any more time than that if you get down to business. You find out from her what saddle she wants, and you can tell me while I'm eating supper, Mrs. Hawley. I'll 'tend to the rest." He did not wait to hear whether they agreed to the plan, but went moodily down the narrow passage, and entered frowningly the "office." Several men were gathered there, waiting the supper summons. Hawley glanced up from wiping a glass, and grinned.
"Well, did you git the pie?"
"Naw. She said I'd got to wait for mealtime. She plumb chased me out."
Fred De Garmo, sprawled in an armchair and smoking a cigar, lazily fanned the smoke cloud from before his face and looked at Kent attentively.
A LADY IN A TEMPER
To saddle two horses when the night has grown black and to lead them, unobserved, so short a distance as two hundred yards or so seems a simple thing; and for two healthy young people with full use of their wits and their legs to steal quietly away to where those horses are waiting would seem quite as simple. At the same time, to prevent the successful accomplishment of these things is not difficult, if one but fully understands the designs of the fugitives.
Hawley Hotel did a flourishing business that night. The two long tables in the dining room, usually not more than half filled by those who hungered and were not over-nice concerning the food they ate, were twice filled to overflowing. Mrs. Hawley and the "breed" girl held hasty consultations in the kitchen over the supply, and never was there such a rattling of dishes hurriedly cleansed for the next comer.
Kent managed to find a chair at the first table, and eyed the landlady unobtrusively. But Fred De Garmo sat down opposite, and his eyes were bright and watchful, so that there seemed no possible way of delivering a message undetected—until, indeed, Mrs. Hawley in desperation resorted to strategy, and urged Kent unnecessarily to take another slice of bacon.
"Have some more—it's side!" she hissed in his ear, and watched anxiously his face.
"All right," said Kent, and speared a slice with his fork, although his plate was already well supplied with bacon. Then, glancing up, he detected Fred in a thoughtful stare which seemed evenly divided between the landlady and himself. Kent was conscious of a passing, mental discomfort, which he put aside as foolish, because De Garmo could not possibly know what Mrs. Hawley meant. To ease his mind still further he glared insolently at Fred, and then at Polycarp Jenks te-heeing a few chairs away. After that he finished as quickly as possible without exciting remark, and went his way.
He had not, however, been two minutes in the office before De Garmo entered. From that time on through the whole evening Fred was never far distant; wherever he went, Kent could not shake him off though De Garmo never seemed to pay any attention to him, and his presence was always apparently accidental.
"I reckon I'll have to lick that son of a gun yet," sighed Kent, when a glance at the round clock in the hotel office told him that in just twenty minutes it would strike nine; and not a move made toward getting those horses saddled and out to the stockyards.
There was much talk of the wedding, which had taken place quietly in the parlor at the appointed hour, but not a man mentioned a charivari. There were many who wished openly that Fleetwood would come out and be sociable about it, but not a hint that they intended to take measures to bring him among them. He had caused a box of cigars to be placed upon the bar of every saloon in town, where men might help themselves at his expense. Evidently he had considered that with the cigars his social obligations were canceled. They smoked the cigars, and, with the same breath, gossiped of him and his affairs.
At just fourteen minutes to nine Kent went out, and, without any attempt at concealment, hurried to the Hawley stables. Half a minute behind him trailed De Garmo, also without subterfuge.
Half an hour later the bridal couple stole away from the rear of the hotel, and, keeping to the shadows, went stumbling over the uneven ground to the stockyards.
"Here's the tie pile," Fleetwood announced, in an undertone, when they reached the place. "You stay here, Val, and I'll look farther along the fence; maybe the horses are down there."
Valeria did not reply, but stood very straight and dignified in the shadow of the huge pile of rotting railroad ties. He was gone but a moment, and came anxiously back to her.
"They're not here," he said, in a low voice. "Don't worry, dear. He'll come—I know Kent Burnett."
"Are you sure?" queried Val sweetly. "From what I have seen of the gentleman, your high estimate of him seems quite unauthorized. Aside from escorting me to the hotel, he has been anything but reliable. Instead of telling you that I was here, or telling me that you were sick, he went straight into a saloon and forgot all about us both. You know that. If he were your friend, why should he immediately begin carousing, instead of—"
"He didn't," Fleetwood defended weakly.
"No? Then perhaps you can explain his behavior. Why didn't he tell me you were sick? Why didn't he tell you I came on that train? Can you tell me that, Manley?"
Manley, for a very good reason, could not; so he put his arms around her and tried to coax her into good humor.
"Sweetheart, let's not quarrel so soon—why, we're only two hours married! I want you to be happy, and if you'll only be brave and—"
"Brave!" Mrs. Fleetwood laughed rather contemptuously, for a bride. "Please to understand, Manley, that I'm not frightened in the least. It's you and that horrid cowboy—I don't see why we need run away, like criminals. Those men don't intend to murder us, do they?" Her mood softened a little, and she squeezed his arm between her hands. "You dear old silly, I'm not blaming you. With your head in such a state, you can't think things out properly, and you let that cowboy influence you against your better judgment. You're afraid I might be annoyed—but, really, Manley, this silly idea of running away annoys me much more than all the noise those fellows could possibly make. Indeed, I don't think I would mind—it would give me a glimpse of the real West; and, perhaps, if they grew too boisterous, and I spoke to them and asked them not to be quite so rough—and, really, they only mean it as a sort of welcome, in their crude way. We could invite some of the nicest in to have cake and coffee—or maybe we might get some ice cream somewhere—and it might turn out a very pleasant little affair. I don't mind meeting them, Manley. The worst of them can't be as bad as that—but, of course, if he's your friend, I suppose I oughtn't to speak too freely my opinion of him!"
Fleetwood held her closely, patted her cheek absently, and tried to think of some effective argument.
"They'll be drunk, sweetheart," he told her, after a silence.
"I don't think so," she returned firmly. "I have been watching the street all the evening. I saw any number of men passing back and forth, and I didn't see one who staggered. And they were all very quiet, considering their rough ways, which one must expect. Why, Manley, you always wrote about these Western men being such fine fellows, and so generous and big-hearted, under their rough exterior. Your letters were full of it—and how chivalrous they all are toward nice women."
She laid her head coaxingly against his shoulder. "Let's go back, Manley. I—want to see a charivari, dear. It will be fun. I want to write all about it to the girls. They'll be perfectly wild with envy." She struggled with her conventional upbringing. "And even if some of them are slightly under the influence—of liquor, we needn't meet them. You needn't introduce those at all, and I'm sure they will understand,"
"Don't be silly, Val!" Fleetwood did not mean to be rude, but a faint glimmer of her romantic viewpoint—a viewpoint gained chiefly from current fiction and the stage—came to him and contrasted rather brutally with the reality. He did not know how to make her understand, without incriminating himself. His letters had been rather idealistic, he admitted to himself. They had been written unthinkingly, because he wanted her to like this big land; naturally he had not been too baldly truthful in picturing the place and the people. He had passed lightly over their faults and thrown the limelight on their virtues; and so he had aided unwittingly the stage and the fiction she had read, in giving her a false impression.
Offended at his words and his tone, she drew away from him and glanced wistfully back toward the town, as if she meditated a haughty return to the hotel. She ended by seating herself upon a projecting tie.
"Oh, very well, my lord," she retorted, "I shall try and not be silly, but merely idiotic, as you would have me. You and your friend!" She was very angry, but she was perfectly well-bred, she hoped. "If I might venture a word," she began again ironically, "it seems to me that your friend has been playing a practical joke upon you. He evidently has no intention of bringing any fleet steeds to us. No doubt he is at this moment laughing with his dissolute companions, because we are sitting out here in the dark like two silly chickens!"
"I think he's coming now," Manley said rather stiffly. "Of course, I don't ask you to like him; but he's putting himself to a good deal of trouble for us, and—"
"Wasted effort, so far as I am concerned," Valeria put in, with a chirpy accent which was exasperating, even to a bridegroom very much in love with his bride.
In the darkness that muffled the land, save where the yellow flare of lamps in the little town made a misty brightness, came the click of shod hoofs. Another moment and a man, mounted upon a white horse, loomed indistinct before them, seeming to take substance from the night. Behind him trailed another horse, and for the first time in her life Valeria heard the soft, whispering creak of saddle leather, the faint clank of spur chains, and the whir of a horse mouthing the "cricket" in his bit. Even in her anger, she was conscious of an answering tingle of blood, because this was life in the raw—life such as she had dreamed of in the tight swaddlings of a smug civilization, and had longed for intensely.
Kent swung down close beside them, his form indistinct but purposeful. "I'm late, I guess," he remarked, turning to Fleetwood. "Fred got next, somehow, and—I was detained."
"Where is he?" asked Manley, going up and laying a questioning hand upon the horse, by that means fully recognizing it as Kent's own.
"In the oats box," said Kent laconically. He turned to the girl. "I couldn't get the sidesaddle," he explained apologetically. "I looked where Mrs. Hawley said it was, but I couldn't find it—and I didn't have much time. You'll have to ride a stock saddle."
Valeria drew back a step. "You mean—a man's saddle?" Her voice was carefully polite.
"Why, yes." And he added: "The horse is dead gentle—and a sidesaddle's no good, anyhow. You'll like this better." He spoke, as was evident, purely from a man's viewpoint.
That viewpoint Mrs. Fleetwood refused to share. "Oh, I couldn't ride a man's saddle," she protested, still politely, and one could imagine how her lips were pursed. "Indeed, I'm not sure that I care to leave town at all." To her the declaration did not seem unreasonable or abrupt but she felt that Kent was very much shocked. She saw him turn his head and look back toward the town, as if he half expected a pursuit.
"I don't reckon the oats box will hold Fred very long," he observed meditatively. He added reminiscently to Manley: "I had a deuce of a time getting the cover down and fastened."
"I'm very sorry," said Valeria, with sweet dignity, "that you gave yourself so much trouble—"
"I'm kinda sorry myself," Kent agreed mildly, and Valeria blushed hotly, and was glad he could not see.
"Come, Val—you can ride this saddle, all right. All the girls out here—"
"I did not come West to imitate all the girls. Indeed, I could never think of such a thing. I couldn't possibly—really, Manley! And, you know, it does seem so childish of us to run away—"
Kent moved restlessly, and felt to see if the cinch was tight.
Fleetwood took her coaxingly by the arm. "Come, sweetheart, don't be stubborn. You know—"
"Well, really! If it's a question of obstinacy—You see, I look at the matter in this way: You believe that you are doing what is best for my sake; I don't agree with you—and it does seem as if I should be permitted to judge what I desire." Then her dignity and her sweet calm went down before a flash of real, unpolished temper. "You two can take those nasty horses and ride clear to Dakota, if you want to. I'm going back to the hotel. And I'm going to tell somebody to let that poor fellow out of that box. I think you're acting perfectly horrid, both of you, when I don't want to go!" She actually started back toward the scattered points of light.
She did not, however, get so faraway that she failed to hear Kent's "Well, I'll be damned!" uttered in a tone of intense disgust.
"I don't care," she assured herself, because of the thrill of compunction caused by that one forcible sentence. She had never before in her life heard a man really swear. It affected her very much as would the accidental touch of an electric battery. She walked on slowly, stumbling a little and trying to hear what it was they were saying.
Then Kent passed her, loping back to the town, the led horse shaking his saddle so that it rattled the stirrups like castanets as he galloped. "I don't care," she told herself again very emphatically, because she was quite sure that she did care—or that she would care if only she permitted herself to be so foolish. Manley overtook her then, and drew her hand under his arm to lead her. But he seemed quite sullen, and would not say a word all the way back.
Kent jerked open the stable door, led in his horses, turned them into their stalls, and removed the saddles with quick, nervous movements which told plainly how angry he was.
"I'll get myself all excited trying to do her a favor again—I don't think!" he growled in the ear of Michael, his gray gelding. "Think of me getting let down on my face like that! By a woman!"
He felt along the wall in the intense darkness until his fingers touched a lantern, took it down from the nail where it hung, and lighted it. He carried it farther down the rude passage between the stalls, hung it high upon another nail, and turned to the great oats box, from within which came a vigorous thumping and the sound of muttered cursing.
Kent was not in the mood to see the humor of anything in particular. Had he known anything about Pandora's box he might have drawn a comparison very neatly while he stood scowling down at the oats box, for certainly he was likely to release trouble in plenty when he unfastened that lid. He felt of the gun swinging at his hip, just to assure himself that it was there and ready for business in case Fred wanted to shoot, and rapped with his knuckles upon the box, producing instant silence within.
"Don't make so much noise in there," he advised grimly, "not unless you want the whole town to know where you are, and have 'em give you the laugh. And, listen here: I ain't apologizing for what I done, but, all the same, I'm sorry I did it. It wasn't any use. I'd rather be shut up in an oats box all night than get let down like I was—and I'm telling you this so as to start us off even. If you want to fight about it when you come out, all right; you're the doctor. But I'm just as sorry as you are it happened. I lay down my hand right here. I hope you shivaree Man and his wife—and shivaree 'em good. I hope you bust the town wide open."
"Why this sudden change of heart?" came muffled from within.
"Ah—that's my own business. Well, I don't like you a little bit, and you know it; but I'll tell you, just to give you a fair show. I wanted to keep Man sober, and I tried to get him and his wife out of town before that shivaree of yours was pulled off. But the lady wouldn't have it that way. I got let right down on my face, and I'm done. Now you know just where I stand. Maybe I'm a fool for telling you, but I seem to be in the business to-night. Come on out."
He unfastened the big iron hasp, which was showing signs of the strain put upon it, and stepped back watchfully. The thick, oaken lid was pushed up, and Fred De Garmo, rather dusty and disheveled and purple from the close atmosphere of the box and from anger as well, came up like a jack-in-the-box and glared at Kent. When he had stepped out upon the stable floor, however, he smiled rather unpleasantly.
"If you've told the truth," he said maliciously, "I guess the lady has pretty near evened things up. If you haven't—if I don't find them both at the hotel—well—Anyway," he added, with an ominous inflection, "there'll be other days to settle this in!"
"Why, sure. Help yourself, Fred," Kent retorted cheerfully, and stood where he was until Fred had gone out. Then he turned and closed the box. "Between that yellow-eyed dame and the chump that went and left this box wide open for me to tip Fred into," he soliloquized, while he took down the lantern, and so sent the shadows dancing weirdly about him, "I've got a bunch of trouble mixed up, for fair. I wish the son of a gun would fight it out now, and be done with it; but no, that ain't Fred. He'd a heap rather wait and let it draw interest!"
Over in the hotel the "yellow-eyed dame" was doing her unsophisticated best to meet the situation gracefully, and to realize certain vague and rather romantic dreams of her life out West. She meant to be very gracious, for one thing, and to win the chivalrous friendship of every man who came to participate in the rude congratulations that had been planned. Just how she meant to do this she did not know—except that the graciousness would certainly prove a very important factor.
"I'm going to remain downstairs," she told Manley, when they reached the hotel. It was the first sentence she had spoken since he overtook her. "I'm so glad, dear," she added diplomatically, "that you decided to stay. I want to see that funny landlady now, please, and get her to serve coffee and cake to our guests in the parlor. I wish I might have had one of my trunks brought over here; I should like to wear a pretty gown." She glanced down at her tailored suit with true feminine dissatisfaction. "But everything was so—so confused, with your being late, and sick—is your head better, dear?"
Manley, in very few words, assured her that it was. Manley was struggling with his inner self, trying to answer one very important question, and to answer it truthfully: Could he meet "the boys," do his part among them, and still remain sober? That seemed to be the only course open to him now, and he knew himself just well enough to doubt his own strength. But if Kent would help him—He felt an immediate necessity to find Kent.
"You'll find Mrs. Hawley somewhere around," he said hurriedly. "I've got to see Kent—"
"Oh, Manley! Don't have anything to do with that horrid cowboy! He's not—nice. He—he swore, when he must have known I could hear him; and he was swearing about me, Manley. Didn't you hear him?" She stood in the doorway and clung to his arm.
"No," lied Manley. "You must have been mistaken, sweetheart."
"Oh, I wasn't; I heard him quite plainly." She must have thought it a terrible thing, for she almost whispered the last words, and she released him with much reluctance. It seemed to her that Manley was in danger of falling among low associates, and that she must protect him in spite of himself. It failed to occur to her that Manley had been exposed to that danger for three years, without any protection whatever.
She was thankful, when he came to her later in the parlor, to learn from him that he had not held any speech with Kent. That was some comfort—and she felt that she needed a little comforting, just then. Her consultation with Arline had been rather unsatisfactory. Arline had told her bluntly that "the bunch" didn't want any coffee and cake. Whisky and cigars, said Arline, without so much as a blush, was what appealed to them fellows. If Manley handed it out liberal enough, they wouldn't bother his bride. Very likely, Arline had assured her, she wouldn't see one of them. That, on the whole, had been rather discouraging. How was she to show herself a gracious lady, forsooth, if no one came near her? But she kept these things jealously tucked away in the remotest corner of her own mind, and managed to look the relief she did not feel.
And, after all, the charivari, as is apt to be the case when the plans are laid so carefully, proved a very tame affair. Valeria, sitting rather dismally in the parlor with Mrs. Hawley for company, at midnight heard a banging of tin cans somewhere outside, a fitful popping of six-shooters, and an abortive attempt at a procession coming up the street. But the lines seemed to waver and then break utterly at the first saloon, where drink was to be had for the asking and Manley Fleetwood was pledged to pay, and the rattle of cans was all but drowned in the shouts of laughter and talk which came from the "office," across the hall. For where is the pleasure or the profit in charivaring a bridal couple which stays up and waits quite openly for the clamor?
"Is it always so noisy here at night?" asked Valeria faintly when Mrs. Hawley had insisted upon her lying down upon the uncomfortable sofa.
"Well, no—unless a round-up pulls in, or there's a dance, or it's Christmas, or something. It's liable to keep up till two or three o'clock, so the sooner you git used to it, the better off you'll be. I'm going to leave you here, and go to bed—unless you want to go upstairs yourself. Only it'll be noisier than ever up in your room, for it's right over the office, and the way sound travels up is something fierce. Don't you be afraid—I'll lock this door, and if your husband wants to come in he can come through the dining room." She looked at Valeria and hesitated before she spoke the next sentence. "And don't you worry a bit over him, neither. My old man was in the kitchen a minute ago, when I was out there, and he says Man ain't drinking a drop to-night. He's keeping as straight as—"
Valeria sat up suddenly, quite scandalized. "Oh—why, of course Manley wouldn't drink with them! Why—who ever heard of such a thing? The idea!" She stared reproachfully at her hostess.
"Oh, sure! I didn't say such a thing was liable to happen. I just thought you might be—worrying—they're making so much racket in there," stammered Arline.
"Indeed, no. I'm not at all worried, thank you. And please don't let me keep you up any longer, Mrs. Hawley. I am quite comfortable—mentally and physically, I assure you. Good night."
Not even Mrs. Hawley could remain after that. She went out and closed the door carefully behind her, without even finding voice enough to return Valeria's sweetly modulated good night.
"She's got a whole lot to learn," she relieved her feelings somewhat by muttering as she mounted the stairs.
What it cost Manley Fleetwood to abstain absolutely and without even the compromise of "soft" drinks that night, who can say? Three years of free living in Montana had lowered his standard of morality without giving him that rugged strength of mind which makes a man master of himself first of all. He had that day lain, drunken and sleeping, when he should have been at his mental and physical best to meet the girl who would marry him. It was that very defection, perhaps, which kept him sober in the midst of his taunting fellows. Now that Valeria was actually here, and was his wife, he was possessed by the desire to make some sacrifice by which he might prove his penitence. At any cost he would spare her pain and humiliation, he told himself.
He did it, and he did it under difficulty. He was denied the moral support of Kent Burnett, for Kent was sulking over his slight, and would have nothing to say to him. He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his crowd. He was "baptized" by some drunken reveler, so that the stench of spilled whisky filled his nostrils and tortured him the night through. He was urged, he was bullied, he was ridiculed. His head throbbed, his eyeballs burned. But through it all he stayed among them because he feared that if he left them and went to Val, some drunken fool might follow him and shock her with his inebriety. He stayed, and he stayed sober. Val was his wife. She trusted him, and she was ignorant of his sins. If he went to her staggering and babbling incoherent foolishness, he knew it would break her heart.
When the sky was at last showing faint dawn tints and the clamor had worn itself out perforce—because even the leaders were, after all, but men, and there was a limit to their endurance—Manley entered the parlor, haggard enough, it is true, and bearing with him the stale odor of cigars long since smoked, and of the baptism of bad whisky, but also with the air of conscious rectitude which sits so comically upon a man unused to the feeling of virtue.
As is so often the case when one fights alone the good fight and manages to win, he was chagrined to find himself immediately put upon the defensive. Val, as she speedily demonstrated, declined to look upon him as a hero, or as being particularly virtuous. She considered herself rather neglected and abused. She believed that he had stayed away because he was angry with her on account of her refusal to leave town, and she thought that was rather brutal of him. Also, her head ached from tears and lack of sleep, and she hated the town, the hotel—almost she hated Manley himself.
Manley felt the rebuff of her chilling silence when he came in, and when she twitched herself loose from his embrace he came near regretting his extreme virtue. He spent ten minutes trying to explain, without telling all of the truth, and he felt his good opinion of himself slipping from him before her inexorable disfavor.
"Well, I don't blame you for not liking the town, Val," he said at last, rather desperately. "But you mustn't judge the whole country by it. You'll like the ranch, dear. You'll feel as if you were in another world—"
"I hope so," Val interrupted quellingly.
"We'll drive out there just as soon as we have breakfast." He laid his hand diffidently upon her tumbled hair. "I had to stay out there with those fellows. I didn't want to—"
"I don't want any breakfast," said Val, getting up and going over to the window—it would seem to avoid his caress. "The odor of that dining room is enough to make one fast forever." She lifted the grimy lace curtain with her finger tips and looked disconsolately out upon the street. "It's just a dirty, squalid little hamlet. I don't suppose the streets have been cleaned or the garbage removed from the back yards since the place was first—founded." She laughed shortly at the idea of "founding" a wretched village like that, but she had no other word at hand.
"Arline," she remarked, in a tone of drawling recklessness. "Arline swears. Did you know it? I suppose, of course, you do. She said something that struck me as being shockingly true. She said I'm 'sure having a hell of a honeymoon.'" Then she bit her lips hard, because her eyelids were stinging with the tears she refused to shed in his presence.
"Oh, Val!" From the sofa Manley stared contritely at her back. She must feel terrible, he thought, to bring herself to repeat that sentence—Val, so icily pure in her thoughts and her speech.
Val was blinking her tawny eyes—like the eyes of a lion in color—at the street. Not for the world would she let him see that she wanted to cry! A figure, blurred to indistinctness, appealed in a doorway nearly opposite, stood for a moment looking up at the reddened sky, and came across the street. As the tears were beaten back she saw and recognized him, with a curl of the lip.
"Here comes your cowboy friend—from a saloon, of course." Her voice was lazily contemptuous. "Only his presence in the street was needed to complete the picture of desolation. He has been in a fight, judging from his face. It is all bruised and skinned, and one eye is swollen—ugh! My guide, my adviser—is it possible, Manley, that you couldn't find a nice man to meet me at the train?" She turned from the disagreeable sight of Kent and faced her husband. "Are all the men like that? And are all the women like—Arline?"
Manley looked at her dumbly from the sofa. Would Val ever come to understand the place, and the people, he was wondering.
She laughed suddenly. "I'm beginning to feel very sorry for Walt," she said irrelevantly, pointing to the easel and the expressionless crayon portrait staring out from the gilt frame. "He has to stay in this room always. And I believe another two hours would drive me hopelessly insane." The word caught her attention. "Hope!" she laughed ironically. "What imbecile ever thought of hope in the same breath with this place? What they really ought to do is paint that 'Abandon-hope' admonition across the whole front of the depot!"
Manley, because he had lifted his head too suddenly and so sent white-hot irons of pain clashing through his brain, turned sullen. "If you hate it as bad as all that," he said, "why, there'll be a train for the East in about two hours."
Val stiffened perceptibly, though the petulance in her face changed to something wistful. "Do you mean—do you want me to go?" she asked very calmly.
Manley pressed his fingers hard against his temples. "You know I don't. I want you to stay and like the country, and be happy. But—the way you have been talking makes it seem—a-ah!" He dropped his tortured head upon his hands and did not trouble to finish what he had intended to say. Nervous strain, lack of sleep, and a headache to begin with, were taking heavy toll of him. He could not argue with her; he could not do anything except wish he were dead, or that his head would stop aching.
Val took one of her unexpected changes of mood. She went up and laid her cold fingers lightly upon his temples, where she could see the blood beating savagely in the swollen veins. "What a little beast I am!" she murmured contritely. "Shall I get you some coffee, dear? Or some headache tablets, or—You know a cold cloth helped you last evening. Lie down for a little while. There's no hurry about starting, is there? I—I don't hate the place so awfully, Manley. I'm just cross because I couldn't sleep for the noise. Here's a cushion, dear. I think it's stuffed with scrap iron, for there doesn't seem to be anything soft about it except the invitation to 'slumber sweetly,' in red and green silk; but anything is better than the head of that sofa in its natural state."
She arranged the cushion to her own liking, if not to his, and when it was done she bent down impulsively and kissed him on the cheek, blushing vividly the while.
"I won't be nasty and cross any more," she promised. "Now, I'm going to interview Arline. I hear dishes rattling somewhere; perhaps I can get a cup of real coffee for you." At the door she shook her finger at him playfully. "Don't you dare stir off that sofa while I'm gone," she admonished. "And, remember, we're not going to leave town until your head stops aching—not if we stay here a week!"
She insisted upon bringing him coffee and toast upon a tray—a battered old tray, purloined for that purpose from the saloon, if she had only known it—and she informed him, with a pretty, domestic pride, that she had made the toast herself.
"Arline was going to lay slices of bread on top of the stove," she explained. "She said she always makes toast that way, and no one could tell the difference! I never heard of such a thing—did you, Manley? But I've been attending a cooking school ever since you left Fern Hill. I didn't tell you—I wanted it for a surprise. I could have done better with the toast before a wood fire—I think poor Arline was nearly distracted at the way I poked coals down from the grate; but she didn't say anything. Isn't it funny, to have cream in cans! I don't suppose it ever saw a cow—do you? The coffee's pretty bad, isn't it? But wait until we get home! I can make lovely coffee—if you'll get me a percolator. You will, won't you? And I learned now to make the most delicious fruit salad, just before I left. A cousin of Mrs. Forman's taught me how. Could you drink another cup, dear?"
Manley could not, and she deplored the poor quality, although she generously absolved Arline from blame, because there seemed so much to do in that kitchen. She refused to take any breakfast herself, telling him gayly that the odor in the kitchen was both food and drink.
Because he understood a little of her loathing for the place, Manley lied heroically about his headache, so that within an hour they were leaving town, with the two great trunks roped securely to the buckboard behind the seat, and with Val's suitcase placed flat in the front, where she could rest her feet upon it. Val was so happy at the prospect of getting away from the town that she actually threw a kiss in the direction of Arline, standing with her frowsy head, her dough-spotted apron, and her tired face in the parlor door.
Her mood changed immediately, however, for she had no more than turned from waving her hand at Arline, when they met Kent, riding slowly up the street with his hat tilted over the eye most swollen. Without a doubt he had seen her waving and smiling, and so he must have observed the instant cooling of her manner. He nodded to Manley and lifted his hat while he looked at her full; and Val, in the arrogant pride of virtuous young womanhood, let her golden-brown eyes dwell impersonally upon his face; let her white, round chin dip half an inch downward, and then looked past him as if he were a post by the roadside. Afterwards she smiled maliciously when she saw, with a swift, sidelong glance, how he scowled and spurred unnecessarily his gray gelding.
COLD SPRING RANCH
For almost three years the letters from Manley had been headed "Cold Spring Ranch." For quite as long Val had possessed a mental picture of the place—a picture of a gurgly little brook with rocks and watercress and distracting little pools the size of a bathtub, and with a great, frowning boulder—a cliff, almost—at the head. The brook bubbled out and formed a basin in the shadow of the rock. Around it grew trees, unnamed in the picture, it is true, but trees, nevertheless. Below the spring stood a picturesque little cottage. A shack, Manley had written, was but a synonym for a small cottage, and Val had many small cottages in mind, from which she sketched one into her picture. The sun shone on it, and the western breezes flapped white curtains in the windows, and there was a porch where she would swing her hammock and gaze out over the great, beautiful country, fascinating in its very immensity.
Somewhere beyond the cottage—"shack," she usually corrected herself—were the corrals; they were as yet rather impressionistic; high, round, mysterious inclosures forming an effective, if somewhat hazy, background to the picture. She left them to work out their attractive details upon closer acquaintance, for at most they were merely the background. The front yard, however, she dwelt upon, and made aglow with sturdy, bright-hued flowers. Manley had that spring planted sweet peas, and poppies, and pansies, and other things, he wrote her, and they had come up very nicely. Afterward, in a postscript, he answered her oft-repeated questions about the flower garden:
The flowers aren't doing as well as they might. They need your tender care. I don't have much time to pet them along. The onions are doing pretty well, but they need weeding badly.
In spite of that, the flowers bloomed luxuriantly in her mental picture, though she conscientiously remembered that they weren't doing as well as they might. They were weedy and unkempt, she supposed, but a little time and care would remedy that; and was she not coming to be the mistress of all this, and to make everything beautiful? Besides, the spring, and the brook which ran from it, and the trees which shaded it, were the chief attractions.
Perhaps she betrayed a lack of domesticity because she had not been able to "see" the interior of the cottage—"shack"—very clearly. Sunny rooms, white curtains, bright cushions and books, pictures and rugs mingled together rather confusingly in her mind when she dwelt upon the inside of her future home. It would be bright, and cozy, and "homy," she knew. She would love it because it would be hers and Manley's, and she could do with it what she would. She bothered about that no more than she did about the dresses she would be wearing next year.
Cold Spring Ranch! Think of the allurement of that name, just as it stands, without any disconcerting qualification whatever! Any girl with yellow-brown hair and yellow-brown eyes to match, and a dreamy temperament that beautifies everything her imagination touches, would be sure to build a veritable Eve's garden around those three small words.
With that picture still before her mental vision, clear as if she had all her life been familiar with it in reality, she rode beside Manley for three weary hours, across a wide, wide prairie which looked perfectly level when you viewed it as a whole, but which proved all hills and hollows when you drove over it. During those three hours they passed not one human habitation after the first five miles were behind them. There had been a ranch, back there against a reddish-yellow bluff. Val had gazed upon it, and then turned her head away, distressed because human beings could consent to live in such unattractive surroundings. It was bad in its way as Hope, she thought, but did not say, because Manley was talking about his cattle, and she did not want to interrupt him.
After that there had been no houses of any sort. There was a barbed-wire fence stretching away and away until the posts were mere pencil lines against the blue, where the fence dipped over the last hill before the sky bent down and kissed the earth.
The length of that fence was appalling in a vague, wordless way, Val unconsciously drew closer to her husband when she looked at it, and shivered in spite of the midsummer heat.
"You're getting tired." Manley put his arm around her and held her there.
"We're over half-way now. A little longer and we'll be home." Then he bethought him that she might want some preparation for that home-coming. "You mustn't expect much, little wife. It's a bachelor's house, so far. You'll have to do some fixing before it will suit you. You don't look forward to anything like Fern Hill, do you?"
Val laughed, and bent solicitously over the suitcase, which her feet had marred. "Of course I don't. Nothing out here is like Fern Hill. I know our ranch is different from anything I ever knew—but I know just how it will be, and how everything will look."
"Oh! Do you?" Manley looked at her a bit anxiously.
"For three years," Val reminded him, "you have been describing things to me. You told me what it was like when you first took the place. You described everything, from Cold Spring Coulee to the house you built, and the spring under the rock wall, and even the meadow lark's nest you found in the weeds. Of course I know."
"It's going to seem pretty rough, at first," he observed rather apologetically.
"Yes—but I shall not mind that. I want it to be rough. I'm tired to death of the smug smoothness of my life so far. Oh, if you only knew how I have hated Fern Hill, these last three years, especially since I graduated. Just the same petty little lives lived in the same petty little way, day in and day out. Every Sunday the class in Sunday school, and the bells ringing and the same little walk of four blocks there and back. Every Tuesday and Friday the club meeting—the Merry Maids, and the Mascot, both just alike, where you did the same things. And the same round of calls with mamma, on the same people, twice a month the year round. And the little social festivities—ah, Manley, if you only knew how I tong for something rough and real in my life!" It was very nearly what she said to the tired-faced teacher on the train.
"Well, if that's what you want, you've come to the right place," he told her dryly.
Later, when they drew close to a red coulee rim which he said was the far side of Cold Spring Coulee, she forgot how tired she was, and felt every nerve quiver with eagerness.
Later still, when in the glare of a July sun they drove around a low knoll, dipped into a wide, parched coulee, and then came upon a barren little habitation inclosed in a meager fence of the barbed wire she thought so detestable, she shut her eyes mentally to something she could not quite bring herself to face.
He lifted her out and tumbled the great trunks upon the ground before he drove on to the corrals. "Here's the key," he said, "if you want to go in. I won't be more than a minute or two." He did not look into her face when he spoke.
Val stood just inside the gate and tried to adjust all this to her mental picture. There was the front yard, for instance. A few straggling vines against the porch, and a sickly cluster or two of blossoms—those were the sweet peas, surely. The sun-baked bed of pale-green plants without so much as a bud of promise, she recognized, after a second glance, as the poppies. For the rest, there were weeds against the fence, sun-ripened grass trodden flat, yellow, gravelly patches where nothing grew—and a glaring, burning sun beating down upon it all.
The cottage—never afterward did she think of it by that name, but always as a shack—was built of boards placed perpendicularly, with battens nailed over the cracks to keep out the wind and the snow. At one side was a "lean-to" kitchen, and on the other side was the porch that was just a narrow platform with a roof over it. It was not wide enough for a rocking-chair, to say nothing of swinging a hammock. In the first hasty inspection this seemed to be about all. She was still hesitating before the door when Manley came back from putting up the horses.
"I'm afraid your flowers are a lost cause," he remarked cheerfully. "They were looking pretty good two or three weeks ago. This hot weather has dried them up. Next year we'll have water down here to the house. All these things take time."
"Oh, of course they do." Val managed to smile into his eyes. "Let's see how many dishes you left dirty; bachelors always leave their dishes unwashed on the table, don't they?"
"Sometimes—but I generally wash mine." He led the way into the house, which smelled hot and close, with the odor of food long since cooked and eaten, before he threw all the windows open. The front room was clean—after a man's idea of cleanliness. The floor was covered with an exceedingly dusty carpet, and a rug or two. Her latest photograph was nailed to the wall; and when Val saw it she broke into hysterical laughter.
"You've nailed your colors to the mast," she cried, and after that it was all a joke. The home-made couch, with the calico cushions and the cowhide spread, was a matter for mirth. She sat down upon it to try it, and was informed that chicken wire makes a fine spring. The rickety table, with tobacco, magazines, and books placed upon it in orderly piles, was something to smile over. The chairs, and especially the one cane rocker which went sidewise over the floor if you rocked in it long enough, were pronounced original.
In the kitchen the same masculine idea of cleanliness and order obtained. The stove was quite red, but it had been swept clean. The table was pushed against the only window there, and the back part was filled with glass preserve jars, cans, and a loaf of bread wrapped carefully in paper; but the oilcloth cover was clean—did it not show quite plainly the marks of the last washing? Two frying pans were turned bottom up on an obscure table in an obscure corner of the room, and a zinc water pail stood beside them.
There were other details which impressed themselves upon her shrinking brain, and though she still insisted upon smiling at everything, she stood in the middle of the room holding up her skirts quite unconsciously, as if she were standing at a muddy street crossing, wondering how in the world she was ever going to reach the Other side.
"Isn't it all—deliciously—primitive?" she asked, in a weak little voice, when the smile would stay no longer. "I—love it, dear." That was a lie; more, she was not in the habit of fibbing for the sake of politeness or anything else, so that the words stood for a good deal.
Manley looked into the zinc water pail, took it up, and started for an outer door, rattling the tin dipper as he went. "Want to go up to the spring?" he queried, over his shoulder, "Water's the first thing—I'm horribly thirsty."
Val turned to follow him. "Oh, yes—the spring!" She stopped, however, as soon as she had spoken. "No, dear. There'll be plenty of other times. I'll stay here."
He gave her a glance bright with love and blind happiness in her presence there, and went off whistling and rattling the pail at his side.
Val did not even watch him go. She stood still in the kitchen and looked at the table, and at the stove, and at the upturned frying pans. She watched two great horseflies buzzing against a window-pane, and when she could endure that no longer, she went into the front room and stared vacantly around at the bare walls. When she saw her picture again, nailed fast beside the kitchen door, her face lost a little of its frozen blankness—enough so that her lips quivered until she bit them into steadiness.
She went then to the door and stood looking dully out into the parched yard, and at the wizened little pea vines clutching feebly at their white-twine trellis. Beyond stretched the bare hills with the wavering brown line running down the nearest one—the line that she knew was the trail from town. She was guilty of just one rebellious sentence before she struggled back to optimism.
"I said I wanted it to be rough, but I didn't mean—why, this is just squalid!" She looked down the coulee and glimpsed the river flowing calmly past the mouth of it, a majestic blue belt fringed sparsely with green. It must be a mile away, but it relieved wonderfully the monotony of brown hills, and the vivid coloring brightened her eyes. She heard Manley enter the kitchen, set down the pail of water, and come on to where she stood.
"I'd forgotten you said we could see the river from here," she told him, smiling over her shoulder. "It's beautiful, isn't it? I don't suppose, though, there's a boat within millions of miles."
"Oh, there's a boat down there. It leaks, though. I just use it for ducks, close to shore. Admiring our view? Great, don't you think?"
Val clasped her hands before her and let her gaze travel again over the sweep of rugged hills. "It's—wonderful. I thought I knew, but I see I didn't. I feel very small, Manley; does one ever grow up to it?"
He seemed dimly to catch the note of utter desolation. "You'll get used to all that," he assured her. "I thought I'd reached the jumping-off place, at first. But now—you couldn't dog me outa the country."
He was slipping into the vernacular, and Val noticed it, and wondered dully if she would ever do likewise. She had not yet admitted to herself that Manley was different. She had told herself many times that it would take weeks to wipe out the strangeness born of three years' separation. He was the same, of course; everything else was new and—different. That was all. He seemed intensely practical, and he seemed to feel that his love-making had all been done by letter, and that nothing now remained save the business of living. So, when he told her to rest, and that he would get dinner and show her how a bachelor kept house, she let him go with no reply save that vague, impersonal smile which Kent had encountered at the depot.
While he rattled things about in the kitchen, she stood still in the doorway with her fingers doubled into tight little fists, and stared out over the great, treeless, unpeopled land which had swallowed her alive. She tried to think—and then, in another moment, she was trying not to think.
Glancing quickly over her shoulder, to make sure Manley was too busy to follow her, she went off the porch and stood uncertain in the parched inclosure which was the front yard.
"I may as well see it all, and be done," she whispered, and went stealthily around the corner of the house, holding up her skirts as she had done in the kitchen. There was a dim path beaten in the wiry grass—a path which started at the kitchen door and wound away up the coulee. She followed it. Undoubtedly it would lead her to the spring; beyond that she refused to let her thoughts travel.
In five minutes—for she went slowly—she stopped beside a stock-trampled pool of water and yellow mud. A few steps farther on, a barrel had been sunk in the ground at the base of a huge gray rock; a barrel which filled slowly and spilled the overflow into the mud. There was also a trough, and there was a barrier made of poles and barbed wire to keep the cattle from the barrel. One crawled between two wires, it would seem, to dip up water for the house. There were no trees—not real trees. There were some chokecherry bushes higher than her head, and there were other bushes that did not look particularly enlivening.
With a smile of bitter amusement, she tucked her skirts tightly around her, crept through the fence, and filled a chipped granite cup which stood upon a rock ledge, and drank slowly. Then she laughed aloud.
"The water really is cold," she said. "Anywhere else it would be delicious. And that's a spring, I suppose." Mercilessly she was stripping her mind of her illusions, and was clothing it in the harsher weave of reality. "All these hills are Manley's—our ranch." She took another sip and set down the cup. "And so Cold Spring Ranch means—all this."
Down the coulee she heard Manley call. She stood still, pushing back a fallen lock of fine, yellow hair. She turned toward the sound, and the sun in her eyes turned them yellow as the hair above them. She was beautiful, in an odd, white-and-gold way. If her eyes had been blue, or gray—or even brown—she would have been merely pretty; but as they were, that amber tint where one looked for something else struck one unexpectedly and made her whole face unforgettably lovely. However, the color of her eyes and her hair did not interest her then, or make life any easier. She was quite ordinarily miserable and homesick, as she went reluctantly back along the grassy trails The odor of fried bacon came up to her, and she hated bacon. She hated everything.