[Frontispiece: The blazing heat was such that men and horses and steers suffered terribly.]
MAN TO MAN
JUDITH OF BLUE LAKE RANCH, THE BELLS OF SAN JUAN, SIX FEET FOUR, ETC.
J. G. SHEPHERD
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS ———— NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published October, 1920
I. STEVE DIVES INTO DEEP WATERS II. MISS BLUE CLOAK KNOWS WHEN SHE'S BEAT III. NEWS OF A LEGACY IV. TERRY BEFORE BREAKFAST V. HOW STEVE PACKARD CAME HOME VI. BANK NOTES AND A BLIND MAN VII. THE OLD MOUNTAIN LION COMES DOWN FROM THE NORTH VIII. IN RED CREEK TOWN IX. "IT'S MY FIGHT AND HIS. LET HIM GO!" X. A RIDE WITH TERRY XI. THE TEMPTING OF YELLOW BARBEE XII. IN A DARK ROOM XIII. AT THE LUMBER CAMP XIV. THE MAN-BREAKER AT HOME XV. AT THE FALLEN LOG XVI. TERRY DEFIES BLENHAM XVII. AND CALLS ON STEVE XVIII. "IF HE KNOWS—DOES SHE?" XIX. TERRY CONFRONTS HELL-FIRE PACKARD XX. A GATE AND A RECORD SMASHED XXI. PACKARD WRATH AND TEMPLE RAGE XXII. THE HAND OF BLENHAM XXIII. STEVE RIDES BY THE TEMPLE PLACE XXIV. DOWN FROM THE SKY! XXV. THE STAMPEDE XXVI. YELLOW BARBEE KEEPS A PROMISE XXVII. IN HONOR OF THE FAIRY QUEEN!
The blazing heat was such that men and horses and steers suffered terribly . . . . . . Frontispiece
The men about him and Packard withdrew this way and that leaving empty floor space.
Terry's head, her face flushed rosily, her eyes never brighter, popped up on one side of the log.
"Say it!" laughed Terry. "Well, I'm here. Came on business."
MAN TO MAN
STEVE DIVES INTO DEEP WATERS
Steve Packard's pulses quickened and a bright eagerness came into his eyes as he rode deeper into the pine-timbered mountains. To-day he was on the last lap of a delectable journey. Three days ago he had ridden out of the sun-baked town of San Juan; three months had passed since he had sailed out of a South Sea port.
Far down there, foregathering with sailor men in a dirty water-front boarding-house, he had grown suddenly and even tenderly reminiscent of a cleaner land which he had roamed as a boy. He stared back across the departed years as many a man has looked from just some such resort as Black Jack's boarding-house, a little wistfully withal. Abruptly throwing down his unplayed hand and forfeiting his ante in a card game, he had gotten up and taken ship back across the Pacific. The house of Packard might have spelled its name with the seven letters of the word "impulse."
Late to-night or early to-morrow he would go down the trail into Packard's Grab, the valley which had been his grandfather's and, because of a burst of reckless generosity on the part of the old man, Steve's father's also. But never Steve's, pondered the man on the horse; word of his father's death had come to him five months ago and with it word of Phil Packard's speculations and sweeping losses.
But never had money's coming and money's going been a serious concern of Steve Packard; and now his anticipation was sufficiently keen. The world was his; he had no need of a legal paper to state that the small fragment of the world known as Ranch Number Ten belonged to him. He could ride upon it again, perhaps find one like old Bill Royce, the foreman, left. And then he could go on until he came to the other Packard ranch where his grandfather had lived and still might be living.
After all of this—Well, there were many sunny beaches here and there along the seven seas where he had still to lie and sun himself. Now it was a pure joy to note how the boles of pine and cedar pointed straight toward the clear, cloudless blue; how the little streams trickled through their worn courses; how the quail scurried to their brushy retreats; how the sunlight splashed warm and golden through the branches; how valleys widened and narrowed and the thickly timbered ravines made a delightful and tempting coolness upon the mountainsides.
It was an adventure with its own thrill to ride around a bend in the narrow trail and be greeted by an old, well-remembered landmark: a flat-topped boulder where he had lain when a boy, looking up at the sky and thrilling to the whispered promises of life; or a pool where he had fished or swum; or a tree he had climbed or from whose branches he had shot a gray squirrel. A wagon-road which he might have taken he abandoned for a trail which better suited his present fancy since it led with closer intimacy into the woods.
It was late afternoon when he came to the gentle rise which gave first glint of the little lake so like a blue jewel set in the dusty green of the wooded slopes. As he rose in his stirrups to gaze down a vista through the tree-trunks, he saw the bright, vivid blue of a cloak.
"Now, there's a woman," thought Packard without enthusiasm. "The woods were quite well enough alone without her. As I suppose Eden was. But along she comes just the same. And of course she must pick out the one dangerous spot on the whole lake shore to display herself on."
For he knew how, just yonder where the blue cloak caught the sunlight, there was a sheer bank and how the lapping water had cut into it, gouging it out year after year so that the loose soil above was always ready to crumble and spill into the lake. The wearer of the bright garment stirred and stood up, her back still toward him.
"Young girl, most likely," he hazarded an opinion.
Though she was too far from him to be at all certain, he had sensed something of youth's own in the very quality of her gesture.
Then suddenly he clapped his spurs to his horse's sides and went racing down the slope toward the spot where an instant ago she had made such a gay contrast to dull verdure and gray boulders. For he had glimpsed the quick flash of an up-thrown arm, had heard a low cry, had guessed rather than seen through the low underbrush her young body falling.
As he threw himself from his horse's back, his spur caught in the blue cloak which had dropped from her shoulders; he kicked at it savagely. He jerked off his boots, poised a moment looking down upon the disturbed surface of the water which had closed over her head, made out the sweep of an arm under the widening circles, and dived straight down.
And so deep down under water they met for the first time, Steve Packard with a sense of annoyance that was almost outright irritation, the girl struggling frantically as his right arm closed tight about her. A quick suspicion came to him that she had not fallen but had thrown herself downward in some passionate quarrel with life; that she wanted to die and would give him scant thanks for the rescue.
This thought was followed by the other that in her access of terror she was doing what the drowning person always does—losing her head, threatening to bind his arms with her own and drag him down with her.
Struggling half blindly and all silently they rose a little toward the surface. Packard tightened his grip about her body, managed to imprison one of her arms against her side, beat at the water with his free hand, and so, just as his lungs seemed ready to burst, he brought his nostrils into the air.
He drew in a great breath and struck out mightily for the shore, seeking a less precipitous bank at the head of a little cove. As he did so, he noted how her struggles had suddenly given over, how she floated quietly with him, her free arm even aiding in their progress.
A little later he crawled out of the clear, cold water to a pebbly beach, drawing her after him.
And now he understood that his destiny and his own headlong nature had again made a consummate fool of him. The same knowledge was offered him freely in a pair of gray eyes which fairly blazed at him. No gratitude there of a maiden heroically succored in the hour of her supreme distress; just the leaping anger of a girl with a temper like hot fire who had been rudely handled by a stranger.
Her scanty little bathing-suit, bright blue like the discarded cloak, the red rubber cap binding the bronze hair—she must have donned the ridiculous thing with incredible swiftness while he batted an eye—might have been utterly becoming in other eyes than those of Steve Packard. Now that they merely told him that he was a blundering ass, he was conscious solely of a desire to pick her up and shake her.
"Gee!" she panted at him with an angry scornfulness which made him wince. "You're about the freshest proposition I ever came across!"
Later, perhaps, he would admit that she was undeniably and most amazingly pretty; that the curves of her little white body were delightfully perfect; that she had made an armful that at another time would have put sheer delirium into a man's blood.
Just now he knew only that in his moment of nothing less than stupidity he had angered her and that his own anger though more unreasonable was scarcely less heated; that he had made and still made but a sorry spectacle; that he was sopping wet and cold and would be shivering in a moment like a freezing dog.
"Why did you want to yell like a Comanche Indian when you went in?" he demanded rudely, offering the only defense he could put mind or tongue to. "A man would naturally suppose that you were falling."
"You didn't suppose any such thing!" she retorted sharply. "You saw me dive; if you had the brains of a scared rabbit, you'd know that when a girl had gone to the trouble to climb into a bathing-suit and then jumped into the water she wanted a swim. And to be left alone," she added scathingly.
Packard felt the afternoon breeze through the wet garments which stuck so close to him, and shivered.
"If you think," he said, as sharply as she had spoken, "that I just jumped into that infernal ice-pond, clothes and all, for the pure joy of making your charming acquaintance in some ten feet of water, all I can say is that you are by no means lacking a full appreciation of your own attractiveness."
She opened her eyes widely at him, lying at his feet where he had deposited her. She had not offered to rise. But now she sat up, drawing her knees into the circle of her clasped arms, tilting her head back as she stared up at him.
"You've got your nerve, Mr. Man," she informed him coolly. "Any time that you think I'll stand for a fool man jumping in and spoiling my fun for me and then scolding me on top of it, you've got another good-sized think coming. And take it from me, you'll last a good deal longer in this neck of the woods if you 'tend to your own business after this and keep your paws off other folks' affairs. Get me that time?"
"I get you all right," grunted Packard. "And I find your gratitude to a man who has just risked his life for you quite touching."
"Gratitude? Bah!" she told him, leaping suddenly to her feet. "Risked your life for me, did you?" She laughed jeeringly at that. "Why, you big lummox, I could have yanked you out as easy as turn a somersault if you started to drown. And now suppose you hammer the trail while it's open."
He bestowed upon her a glance whose purpose was to wither her. It failed miserably, partly because she was patently not the sort to be withered by a look from a mere man, and partly because a violent and inopportune shiver shook him from head to foot.
Until now there had been only bright anger in the girl's eyes. Suddenly the light there changed; what had begun as a sniff at him altered without warning into a highly amused giggle.
"Golly, Mr. Man," she taunted him. "You're sure some swell picture as you stand there, hand on hip and popping your eyes out at me! Like a king in a story-book, only he'd just got a ducking and was trying to stare the other fellow down. Which is one thing you can't do with me."
Her eyes had the adorable trick of seeming to crinkle to a mirth which would have been an extremely pleasant phenomenon to witness had she been laughing with him instead of at him. As matters stood, Packard was quite prepared to dislike her heartily.
"I'd add to your kind information that the trail is open at both ends," he told her significantly. "I'm going to find a sunny spot and dry my clothes. No objection, I suppose?"
He clambered up the bank and made his way to the spot whence he had dived after her, bent on retrieving his boots and spurs. Her eyes followed him interestedly. He ignored her and set about extricating a spur rowel from the fabric of the bright blue cloak. Her voice floated up to him then, demanding:
"What in the world are you up to now? Not going to swipe my clothes, are you?"
"I'd have the right," he called back over his shoulder, "if I happened to need a makeshift dressing-gown. As it is, however, I am trying to get my spur out of the thing."
"You great big brute!" she wailed at him, and here she came running along the bank. "You just dare to tear my cloak and I'll hound you out of the country for it! I drove forty miles to get it and this is the first time I ever wore it. Stupid!" And she jerked both the garment and the spur from him.
The lining was silken, of a deep, rich, golden hue. And already it was torn, although but the tiniest bit in the world, by one of the sharp spikes. Her temper, however, ever ready it seemed, flared out again; the crinkling merriment went from her eyes, leaving no trace; the color warmed in her cheeks as she cried:
"You're just like all of the rest of your breed, big and awkward, crowding in where you don't belong, messing up the face of the earth, spoiling things right and left. I wonder if the good Lord Himself knows what he made men for, anyway!"
The offending spur, detached by her quick fingers, described a bright arc in the late sunlight, flew far out, dipped in a little leaping spurt of spray, and went down quietly in the lake.
"Go jump in and get that, if you are so keen on saving things," she mocked him. "There's only, about fifteen feet of water to dig through."
"You little devil!" he said.
For the spur with its companion had cost him twenty dollars down on the Mexican border ten days ago and he had set much store by it.
"Little devil, am I?" she retorted readily. "You'll know it if you don't keep on your side of the road. Look at that tear! Just look at it!"
She had stepped quite close to him, holding out the cloak, her eyes lifted defiantly to his. He put out a sudden hand and laid it on her wet shoulder. She opened her eyes widely again at the new look in his. But even so her regard was utterly fearless.
"Young lady," he said sternly, "so help me God, I've got the biggest notion in the world to take you across my knee and give you the spanking of your life. If I did crowd in where I don't belong, as you so sweetly put it, it was at least to do you a kindness. Another time I'd know better; I'd sooner do a favor for a wildcat."
"Take your dirty paws off of me," she cried, wrenching away from him. "And—spank me, would you?" The fire leaped higher in her eyes, the red in her cheeks gave place to an angrier white. "If you ever so much as dare touch me again——"
She broke off, panting. Packard laughed at her.
"You'd try to scratch me, I suppose," he jeered; "and then, after the fashion of your own sweet sex when you don't have the strength to put a thing across, you'd most likely cry!"
"I'd blow your ugly head off your shoulders with a shot-gun," she concluded briefly.
And despite the extravagance of the words it was borne in upon Packard's understanding that she meant just exactly what she said.
He was getting colder all the time and knew that in a moment his teeth would chatter. So a second time he turned his back on her, gathered up his horse's reins, and moved away, seeking a spot in the woods where he could get dry and sun his clothes. And since Packard rage comes swiftly and more often than not goes the same way, within five minutes over a comforting cigarette he was grinning widely, seeing in a flash all of the humor of the situation which had successfully concealed itself from him until now.
"And I don't blame her so much, after all," he chuckled. "Taking a nice, lonely dive, to have a fool of a man grab her all of a sudden when she was enjoying herself half a dozen feet under water! It's enough to stir up a good healthy temper. Which, by the Lord, she has!"
MISS BLUE CLOAK KNOWS WHEN SHE'S BEAT
Half an hour later, his clothing wrung out and sun-dried after a fashion, Packard dressed, swung up into the saddle, and turned back into the trail. And through the trees, where their rugged trunks made an open vista, he saw not two hundred yards away the gay spot of color made by the blue cloak. So she was still here, lingering down the road that wound about the lake's shores, when already he had fancied her far on her way. He wondered for the first time where that way led?
He drew rein among the pines, waiting in his turn for her to go on. The blue cloak did not move. He leaned to one side to see better, peering around a low-flung cedar bough. His trail here led to the road; he must pass her unless she went on soon.
Beside the vivid hue of her cloak the sunlight streaming through the forest showed him another bright, gay color, a streak of red which through the underbrush he was at first at a loss to account for. He would have said that she was seated in a low-bodied, red wagon, were it not that if such had been the case he must have seen the horses.
"An automobile!" he guessed.
He rode on a score of steps and stopped again. Sure enough, there she sat at the steering-wheel of a long, rakish touring-car, the slump of her shoulders vaguely hinting at despair and perhaps a stalled engine. His grin widened joyously. He touched his horse with his one spur, assumed an expression of vast indifference, and rode on. She jerked up her head, looked about at him swiftly, gave him her shoulder again.
He rode into the road and came on with tantalizing slowness, knowing that she would want to turn again and guessing that she would conquer the impulse. A few paces behind her he stopped again, rolling a fresh cigarette and seeming, as he had been before the meeting, the most leisurely man in the world.
He saw her lean forward, busied with ignition and starter; he fancied that the little breeze brought to him the faintest of guarded exclamations.
"The blamed old thing won't go," chuckled Packard with vast satisfaction. "Some car, too. Boyd-Merril Twin Eight, latest model. And dollars to doughnuts I know just what's wrong—and she doesn't!"
She ignored him with such a perfect unconsciousness of his presence in the same world with her that he was moved to a keen admiration.
"I'll bet her face is as red as a beet, just the same," was his cheerful thought. "And right here, Steve Packard, is where you don't 'crowd in' until you're called on."
She straightened up, sitting very erect, her two hands tense upon the useless wheel. He noted the poise of her head and found in it something almost queenly. For a moment they were both very still, he watching and feeling his sense pervaded by the glowing sensation that all was right with the world, she holding her face averted and keeping her thoughts to herself.
Presently she got out and lifted the hood, looking in upon the engine, despairing. But did not glance toward him. Then she closed the hood and returned to her seat, once more attempting to get some sort of response from the starting system. Packard felt himself fairly beaming all over.
"I may be a low-lived dog and a deep-dyed villain besides," he was frank to admit to himself. "But right now I'm having the time of my life. And I wouldn't bet two bits which way she's going to jump next, either—never having met just her type before."
"Well?" she said abruptly.
She hadn't moved, hadn't so much as turned her head to look at him. If she had done so just then perhaps Packard's extremely good-humored smile, a contented, eminently satisfied smile, would not have warmed her to him.
"Speak to me?" he asked innocently.
"I did. Simply because there's nobody else to speak to. Don't happen to know anything about motor-cars, do you?"
It was all very icily enunciated, but had no noticeably freezing effect upon the man's mood.
"I sure do," he told her cheerfully. "Know 'em from front bumper to tail-lamp. Yours is a Boyd-Merril, Twin Eight, this year's model. Fox-Whiting starting and lighting system. Great little car, too, if you ask me."
"What I was going to ask you," came the cool little voice, more haughtily than ever, "was not what you think of the car but if you—if you happened to know how to make the miserable thing go."
"Sure," he replied to the back of her head, with all of his former pleasant manner. "Pull out the ignition button; push down the starter pedal with your right foot; throw out the clutch with your left; put her into low; let in your clutch slowly; give her a little——"
"Smarty!" He had counted upon some such interruption, and chuckled when it came. "I know all that."
"Then why don't you do it?" he queried innocently. "You're right square in my way, the road's narrow, and I've got to be moving on."
"I don't do it," she informed that portion of the world which lay immediately in front of her slightly elevated nose, "because it won't work. I pulled out the ignition button and—and nothing happened. Then I tried to force down the starter pedal and the crazy thing won't go down."
"I see," said Packard interestedly. "Don't know a whole lot about cars, do you?"
"The world wasn't made overnight," she said tartly. "I've had this pesky thing a month. Do you know what's the matter?"
He took his time in replying. He was so long about it, in fact, that Miss Blue Cloak stirred uneasily and finally shot him a questioning look over her shoulder, just to make sure, he suspected, that he hadn't slipped away and left her.
"Well?" she asked again.
"Speak to me?" he repeated himself, pretending to start from a deep abstraction. "Oh, do I know what's the matter? Sure!"
She waited a reasonable length of time for him to go on. He, secure in the sense of his own mastery of the situation, waited for her. Between them they allowed it to grow very quiet there in the wood by the lake shore. He saw her glance furtively at the lowering sun.
"If you do know," she said finally and somewhat faintly, but as frigidly as ever, "will you tell me or won't you?"
"Why," he said, as though he had not thought of it, "I don't know. If I were really sure that I was needed. You know it's mighty hard telling these days when you stumble upon a damsel in distress whether a stranger's aid is welcome or not. If there's one thing I won't do it's shove myself forward when I'm not wanted."
"You're a nasty animal!" she cried hotly.
"For all I know," he resumed in an untroubled tone, "the end of your journey may be just around the bend, about a hundred yards off. And if I plunged in to be of assistance I might be suspected of being a fresh guy."
"It's half a dozen miles to the ranch-house," she condescended to tell him. "And it's going to get dark in no time. And if you want to know, Mr. Smarty, that's as close as I've ever come or ever will come to asking anything of any man that ever lived."
He could have sat there until dark just for the sheer joy of teasing her, making her pay a little for her recent treatment of him. But there was a note of finality in her voice which did not escape him; in another moment she would jump down and go on on foot and he knew it. So at last he rode up to the car, dismounted, and lifted the hood.
"Ignition," he ordered her.
She pulled out the little button again. His eyes upon hers, his grin frank and unconcealed, he took a stone from the road and with it tapped gently upon the shaft running from the pump. Immediately there came that little hissing sound she had waited for.
"Starter," he commanded.
And now her foot upon the pedal achieved the desired results; the engine responded, humming pleasantly. He closed the hood and stood back eying her with a mingling of amusement and triumph. Her face reddened slowly. And then, startling him with its unheralded unexpectedness, a gay peal of laughter from her made quite another girl of her, a dimpling, radiant, altogether adorable and desirable creature.
"Oh, I know when I'm beat!" she cried frankly. "You've put one across on me to-day, Mr. Man. And since you meant well all along and were just simply the blunderheaded man God made you, I guess I have been a little cat. Good luck to you and a worth-while trail to ride."
She blew him a friendly kiss from her brown finger-tips, bent over her wheel, and took the first turn in the road at a swiftly acquired speed which left Steve Packard behind in dust and growing wonderment.
"And she's been driving only a month," was his softly whistled comment. "Reckless little devil!"
Then, in his turn cocking a speculative eye at the sun in the west, he rode on, following in the track made by the spinning automobile tires.
NEWS OF A LEGACY
When Packard came to a forking of the roads he stopped and hesitated. The automobile tracks led to the left; he was tempted to follow them. And it was his way in the matter of such impulses to yield to temptation. But in this case he finally decided that common sense if not downright wisdom pointed in the other direction.
So, albeit a bit reluctantly, he swerved to the right.
"We'll see you some other time, though, Miss Blue Cloak," he pondered. "For I have a notion it would be good sport knowing you."
An hour later he made out a lighted window, seen and lost through the trees. Conscious of a man's-sized appetite he galloped up the long lane, turned in at a gate sagging wearily upon its hinges, and rode to the door of the lighted house. The first glance showed him that it was a long, low, rambling affair resembling in dejectedness the drooping gate. An untidy sort of man in shirt-sleeves and smoking a pipe came to the door, kicking into silence his half-dozen dogs.
"What's the chance of something to eat and a place to sleep in the barn?" asked Packard.
The rancher waved his pipe widely.
"Help yourself, stranger," he answered, in a voice meant to be hospitable but which through long habit had acquired an unpleasantly sullen tone. "You'll find the sleeping all right, but when it comes to something to eat you can take it from me you'll find damn' poor picking. Get down, feed your horse, and come in."
When he entered the house Packard was conscious of an oddly bare and cheerless atmosphere which at first he was at a loss to explain. For the room was large, amply furnished, cheerfully lighted by a crackling fire of dry sticks in the big rock fireplace, and a lamp swung from the ceiling. What the matter was dawned on him gradually: time was when this chamber had been richly, even exquisitely, furnished and appointed. Now it presented rather a dejected spectacle of faded splendor, not entirely unlike a fine gentleman of the old school fallen among bad companions and into tattered ill repute.
The untidy host, more untidy than ever here in the full light, dragged his slippered feet across the threadbare carpet to a corner cupboard, from which he took a bottle and two glasses.
"We can have a drink anyhow," he said in that dubious tone which so harmonized both with himself and his sitting-room. "After which we'll see what's to eat. Terry fired the cook last week and there's been small feasting since."
Packard accepted a moderate drink, the rancher filled his own glass generously, and they drank standing. This ceremony briefly performed and chairs dragged comfortably up to the fireplace, Packard's host called out loudly:
"Hi, Terry! There's a man here wants something to eat. Anything left?"
"If he's hungry," came the cool answer from a room somewhere toward the other end of the long house, "why can't he forage for himself? Wants me to bring his rations in there and feed it to him, I suppose!"
Packard lifted his eyebrows humorously.
"Is that Terry?" he asked.
"That's Terry," grumbled the rancher. "She's in the kitchen now. And if I was you, pardner, and had a real hankering for grub I'd mosey right along in there while there's something left." His eye roved to the bottle on the chimneypiece and dropped to the fire. "I'll trail you in a minute."
Here was invitation sufficient, and Packard rose swiftly, went out through the door at the end of the room, passed through an untidy chamber which no doubt had been intended originally as a dining-room, and so came into lamplight again and the presence of Miss Blue Cloak.
He made her a bow and smiled in upon her cheerfully. She, perched on an oilcloth-covered table, her booted feet swinging, a thick sandwich in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other, took time to look him up and down seriously and to swallow before she answered his bow with a quick, bird-like nod.
"Don't mind me," she said briefly, having swallowed again. "Dig in and help yourself."
On the table beside her were bread, butter, a very dry and black-looking roast, and a blacker but more tempting coffee-pot.
"I didn't follow you on purpose," said Packard. "Back there where the roads forked I saw that you had turned to the left, so I turned to the right."
"All roads lead to Rome," she said around the corner of the big sandwich. "Anyway, it's all right. I guess I owe you a square meal and a night's lodging for being on the job when my car stalled."
"Not to mention for diving into the lake after you," amended Packard.
"I wouldn't mention it if I were you," she retorted. "Seeing that you just made a fool of yourself that time."
She openly sniffed the air as he stepped by her reaching out for butcher-knife and roast. "So you are dad's kind, are you? Hitting the booze every show you get. The Lord deliver me from his chief blunder. Meaning a man."
"He probably will," grinned Packard genially. "And as for turning up your nose at a fellow for taking a drop o' kindness with a hospitable host, why, that's all nonsense, you know."
Terry kicked her high heels impudently and vouchsafed him no further answer beyond that easy gesture. Packard made his own sandwich, found the salt, poured a tin cup of coffee.
"The sugar's over there." She jerked her head toward a shelf on which, after some searching among a lot of empty and nearly empty cans, Packard found it. "That's all there is and precious little left; help yourself but don't forget breakfast comes in the morning."
"This is the old Slade place, isn't it?" Packard asked.
"It was, about the time the big wall was building in China. Where've you been the last couple of hundred years? It's the Temple place now."
"Then you're Miss Temple?"
"Teresa Arriega for my mother, Temple for my dad," she told him in the quick, bright way which already he found characteristic of her. "Terry for myself, if you say it quick."
He had suspected from the beginning that there was Southern blood of some strain in her. Now he studied her frankly, and, just to try her out, said carelessly:
"If you weren't so tanned you'd be quite fair; your eyes are gray too. Blue-gray when you smile, dark gray when you are angry; and yet you say your mother was Mexican——"
"Mexican, your foot!" she flared out at him, her trim little body stiffening perceptibly, her chin proudly lifted. "The Arriegas were pure-blooded Castilian, I'd have you understand. There's no mongrel about me."
He drowned his satisfied chuckle with a draft of coffee.
"I'm looking for a job," he said abruptly. "Happen to know of any of the cattle outfits around here that are short-handed?"
"Men are scarce right now," she answered. "A good cattle-hand is as hard to locate as a dodo bird. You could get a job anywhere if you're worth your salt."
"I was thinking," said Packard, "of moseying on to Ranch Number Ten. There's a man I used to know—Bill Royce, his name is. Foreman, isn't he?"
"So you know Bill Royce?" countered Terry. "Well, that's something in your favor. He's a good scout."
"Then he is still foreman?"
"I didn't say so! No, he isn't. And I guess he'll never be foreman of that outfit or any other again. He's blind."
Old Bill Royce blind! Here was a shock, and Packard sat back and stared at her speechlessly. Somehow this was incredible, unthinkable, nothing short. The old cattle-man who had been the hero of his boyhood, who had taught him to shoot and ride and swim, who had been so vital and so quick and keen of eye—blind?
"What happened to him?" asked Packard presently.
"Suppose you ask him," she retorted. "If you know him so well. He is still with the outfit. A man named Blenham is the foreman now. He's old Packard's right-hand bower, you know."
"But Phil Packard is dead. And——"
"And old 'Hell-Fire' Packard, Phil Packard's father, never will die. He's just naturally too low-down mean; the devil himself wouldn't have him."
"Terry!" came the voice of the untidy man, meant to be remonstrative but chiefly noteworthy for a newly acquired thickness of utterance.
Terry's eyes sparkled and a hot flush came into her cheeks.
"Leave me alone, will you, pa?" she cried sharply. "I don't owe old Packard anything; no, nor Blenham either. You can walk easy all you like, but I'm blamed if I've got to. If you'd smash your cursed old bottle on their heads and take a brace we'd come alive yet."
"Remember we have a guest with us," grumbled Temple from his place by the sitting-room fire.
"Oh, shoot!" exclaimed the girl impatiently. Reaching out for a second sandwich she stabbed the kitchen-knife viciously into the roast. "I've a notion to pack up and clear out and let the cut-throat crowd clean you to the last copper and pick your bones into the bargain. When did you ever get anywhere by taking your hat off and side-stepping for a Packard? If you're so all-fired strong for remembering, why don't you try to remember how it feels to stand on two feet like a man instead of crawling on your belly like a worm!"
"My dear!" expostulated Temple.
Terry sniffed and paid no further attention to him.
"Dad was all man once," she said without lowering her voice, making clearer than ever that Miss Terry Temple had a way of speaking straight out what lay in her mind, caring not at all who heard. "I'm hoping that some day he'll come back. A real man was dad, a man's man. But that was before the Packards broke him and stepped on him and kicked him out of the trail. And, believe me, the Packards, though they ought to be hung to the first tree, are men just the same!"
"So I have heard," admitted the youngest of the defamed house. "You group them altogether? They're all the same then?"
"Phil Packard's dead," she retorted. "So we'll let him go at that. Old Hell-Fire Packard, his father, is the biggest lawbreaker out of jail. He's the only one left, and from the looks of things he'll keep on living and making trouble another hundred years."
"There was another Packard, wasn't there?" he insisted. "Phil Packard's son, the old man's grandson?"
"Never knew him," said Terry. "A scamp and a scalawag and a tomfool, though, if you want to know. If he wasn't, he'd have stuck on the job instead of messing around in the dirty ports of the seven seas while his old thief of a grandfather stole his heritage from him."
"How's that?" he asked sharply. "How do you mean 'stole' it from him?"
"The same way he gobbles up everything else he wants. Ranch Number Ten ought to belong to the fool boy now, oughtn't it? And here's old Packard's pet dog Blenham running the outfit in old Packard's interests just the same as if it was his already. Set a thief to rob a thief," she concluded briefly.
Steve Packard sat bolt upright in his chair.
"I wouldn't mind getting the straight of this," he told her quietly. "I thought that Philip Packard had sold the outfit to his father before his death."
"He didn't sell it to anybody. He mortgaged it right up to the hilt to the old man. Then he up and died. Of course everything he left, amounting mostly to a pile of debts, went to his good-for-nothing son."
A light which she could not understand, eager and bright, shone in young Packard's eyes. If what she told him were true, then the old home ranch, while commonly looked upon as belonging already to his grandfather, was the property legally of Steve Packard. And Blenham—yes, and old Bill Royce—were taking his pay. Suddenly infinite possibilities stretched out before him.
"Come alive!" laughed Terry. "We were talking about your finding a job. There's one open here for you; first to teach me all you know about the insides of my car; second— What's the matter? Gone to sleep?"
He started. He had been thinking about Blenham and Bill Royce. As Terry continued to stare wonderingly at him he smiled.
"If you don't mind," he said non-committally, "we'll forget about the job for a spell. I left some stuff back at the Packard ranch that belongs to me. I'm going back for it in the morning. Maybe I'll go to work there after all."
She shrugged distastefully.
"It's a free country," she said curtly. "Only I can't see your play. That is, if you're a square guy and not a crook, Number Ten size. You've got a chance to go to work here with a white crowd; if you want to tie up with that ornery bunch it's up to you."
"I'll look them over," he said thoughtfully.
"All right; go to it!" she cried with sudden heat. "I said it was a free country, didn't I? Only you can burn this in your next wheat-straw: once you go to riding herd with that gang you needn't come around here again. And you can take Blenham a message for me: Phil Packard knifed dad and double-crossed him and made him pretty nearly what he is now; old Hell-Fire Packard finished the job. But just the same, the Temple Ranch is still on the map and Terry Temple had rather scrap a scoundrel to the finish than shake hands with one. And one of these days dad's going to come alive yet; you'll see."
"I believe," he said as much to himself as to her, "that I'll have to have a word with old man Packard."
She stared at him incredulously. Then she put her head back and laughed in high amusement.
"Nobody'd miss guessing that you had your nerve with you, Mr. Lanky Stranger," she cried mirthfully. "But when it comes to tackling Hell-Fire Packard with a mouthful of fool questions— Look here; who are you anyway?"
"Nobody much," he answered quietly and just a trifle bitterly. "Tom Fool you named me a while ago. Or, if you prefer, Steve Packard."
She flipped from her place on the table to stand erect, twin spots of red leaping into her cheeks, startling him with the manner in which all mirth fled from her eyes, which narrowed and grew hard.
"That would mean old Hell-Fire's grandson?" she asked sharply.
He merely nodded, watching her speculatively. Her head went still higher. Packard heard her father rise hurriedly and shuffle across the floor toward the kitchen.
"You're a worthy chip off the old stump," Terry was saying contemptuously. "You're a darned sneak!"
"Terry!" admonished Temple warningly.
Her stiff little figure remained motionless a moment, never an eyelid stirring. Then she whirled and went out of the room, banging a door after her.
"She's high-strung, Mr. Packard," said Temple, slow and heavy and a bit uncertain in his articulation. "High-strung, like her mother. And at times apt to be unreasonable. Come in with me and have a drink, and we'll talk things over."
Packard hesitated. Then he turned and followed his host back to the fireplace. Suddenly he found himself without further enthusiasm for conversation.
TERRY BEFORE BREAKFAST
A gay young voice singing somewhere through the dawn awoke Steve Packard and informed him that Terry was up and about. He lay still a moment, listening. He remembered the song, which, by the way, he had not heard for a good many years, the ballad of a cowboy sick and lonely in a big city, yearning for the open country. At times when Terry's humming was smothered by the walls of the house, Packard's memory strove for the words which his ears failed to catch. And more often than not the words, retrieved from oblivion, were less than worth the effort; no poet had builded the chant, which, rather, grown to goodly proportions of perhaps a hundred verses, had resulted from a natural evolution like a modern Odyssey, or some sprawling vine which was what it was because of its environment. But while lines were faulty and rhymes were bad, and the composition never rose above the commonplace, and often enough sank below it, the ballad was sincere and meant much to those who sang it. Its pictures were homely. Steve, catching certain fragments and seeking others, got such phrases as:
"My bed on dry pine-needles, my camp-fire blazin' bright, The smell of dead leaves burnin' through the big wide-open night,"
and with moving but silent lips joined Terry in the triumphant refrain:
"I'm lonesome-sick for the stars through the pines An' the bawlin' of herds . . . an' the noise Of rocks rattlin' down from a mountain trail . . . An' the hills . . . an' my horse . . . an' the boys. An' I'd rather hear a kiote howl Than be the King of Rome! An' when day comes—if day does come— By cripes, I'm goin' home! . . . Back home! Hear me comin', boys? Yeee! I said it: 'Comin' home!'"
He sat up in bed. The fragrance of boiling coffee and frying bacon assailed his nostrils pleasurably. Terry's voice had grown silent. Perhaps she was having her breakfast by now? With rather greater haste than the mere call of his morning meal would seem to warrant, he dressed, ran his fingers through his hair by way of completing his toilet, and, going down a hallway, thrust his head in through the kitchen doorway.
"Good morning," he called pleasantly.
Terry was not yet breakfasting. Down on one knee, poking viciously into the fire-box of an extremely old and dilapidated stove, she was seeking, after the time-honored way of her sex, to make the fire burn better. Her face was rosy, flushed prettily with the glow from the blazing oak wood. Packard's eyes brightened as he looked at her, making a comprehensive survey of the trim little form from the top of her bronze hair to the heels of her spick-and-span boots. About her throat, knotted loosely, was a flaming-red silken scarf. The thought struck him that the Temple fortunes, the Temple ranch, the Temple master, all were falling or had already fallen into varying states of decay, and that alone in the wreckage Terry Temple made a gay spot of color, that alone Terry Temple was determined to keep her place in the sun.
Terry, having poked a goodly part of the fire out, made a face at what remained and got to her feet.
"I've been thinking about you," she said.
"Fine!" said Packard. "You can tell me while we have our coffee."
But he did not fail to mark that she had given him no ready smile by way of welcome, that now she regarded him coolly and critically. In her morning attitude there was little to lead him to hope for a free-and-easy chat across a breakfast-table.
"You strike me," said Terry abruptly and emphatically, "as a pretty slick proposition."
"Why so?" asked Packard interestedly.
"Because," said Terry. For a moment he thought that she was going to stop there. But after a thoughtful pause, during which she looked straight at him with eyes which were meant to be merely clear and judicial but which were just faintly troubled, she went on: "Because you're a Packard, to begin with."
"Look here," protested young Packard equably, "I didn't think that of you; honestly, I didn't. How are you and I ever going to get anywhere . . . in the way of being friends, I mean . . . if you start out by blaming me for what my disreputable old scamp of a grandfather does?"
Terry sniffed openly.
"Forget that friendship gag before you think of it, will you?" she said quickly. "Talking nice isn't going to get you anywhere with me and you might as well remember that. It won't buy you anything to start in telling me that I've got pretty eyes or a dimple, and I won't stand one little minute for your pulling any of that girlie-stuff on me. . . . I said, to begin with, you're a Packard. That ought to be enough, the Lord knows! But it's not all."
"First thing," he suggested cheerfully, "are you going to ask me to have breakfast with you?"
"Yes," she answered briefly. "Since you are here and since dad had you stay all night. If you were the devil himself, I'd give you something to eat."
"Being merely the devil's grandson," grinned Packard, "suppose I tuck in and help? I'll set the table while you do the cooking."
"I don't bother setting any table," said Terry as tartly as she knew how. "Besides, the coffee and bacon are both done and that's all the cooking there is. You know where the bread and butter and sugar are. Help yourself. There isn't any milk."
She poured her own coffee, made a sandwich of bacon and bread, and went to sit as he had found her last night, on the table, her feet swinging.
Steve Packard had gone to sleep filled with high hopes last night, and had awakened with a fresh, new zest in life this morning. Like the cowboy in the ballad, he had wanted nothing in the world save to be back on the range, and he had his wish, or would have it fully in a few hours, when he had ridden to Ranch Number Ten. Fully appreciating Terry's prejudices, he had meant to remember that she was "just a kid of a girl, you know," and to banter her out of them. Now he was ready to acknowledge that he had failed to give Terry her due; with a sudden access of irritation it was borne in upon him that if she was fully minded to be stand-offish and unpleasant, he had something more than just a kid of a girl to deal with. Frowning, he sought his tobacco and papers.
"Going to eat?" asked Terry carelessly. "Or not?"
"I don't know . . . yet," he returned, lifting his eyes from his cigarette. "Most certainly not if you don't want me to."
"Ho!" taunted Terry, the bright light of battle in her eyes. "Climbing on your high horse, are you? Well, then, stay there."
Packard lighted his cigarette and returned her look steadily.
"Kid of a girl, nothing!" he told himself. And going back to his epithet of yesterday, "Little wildcat."
"Then," continued the girl evenly, taking up the conversation where it had broken down some time ago, "I'll say what I've got to say. First, because you're a Packard. Next, because it was pretty slick work, that stunt of yours, diving into the lake for me, pretending you didn't know who I was, and grabbing the first chance to get acquainted. Much good it'll do you! Maybe I haven't been through high school and you have fussed around at college; just the same, Mr. Steve Packard, Terry Temple's not your fool or any other man's! And, on top of all of your other nerve, to try and make me think you didn't know you owned your own ranch! And trying to pump me and corkscrewing away at dad when he was full of whiskey. . . . Pah! Your kind of he-animal makes me sick."
"You think," he offered stiffly, "that I'm hand and glove with Blenham? And, perhaps, that I'm taking orders from my grandfather, trying to put one over on you?"
"Thinking's not the right word," she corrected sharply. "I know."
He shrugged. As he did so it struck him that there was nothing else for him to do. She had the trick of utter finality.
"And," she called after him as he turned abruptly to leave the room, "you can tell old Hell Fire for me that maybe he's got the big bulge on the situation right now but that it's bad luck to count your chips until the game is over. There's a come-back left in dad yet, and . . . and if you or your hell-roaring old granddad think you can swallow the Temple outfit whole, like you've done a lot of other outfits . . ."
Packard went out and slammed the door after him.
"Damn the girl!" he muttered angrily.
Terry, sitting on the table, grew very still, ceased the swinging of her feet, and turned to peek cautiously out at him from the kitchen window. Her look was utterly joyous.
"Men are always horrid creatures before they've had their breakfasts," she informed the stillness about her complacently.
HOW STEVE PACKARD CAME HOME
Had Steve Packard ridden straightway back to Ranch Number Ten he would have arrived at the ranch headquarters long before noon. But, once out in the still dawn, he rode slowly. His mind, when he could detach it from that irritating Terry Pert, was given over to a searching consideration of those conditions which were beginning to dawn on him.
It was clear that his destiny was offering him a new trail to blaze, one which drew him on with its lure, tempting him with its vague promises. There was nothing to cause surprise in the fact that the ranch was his to have and to hold if he had the skill and the will for the job; nor yet in the other fact that the outfit was mortgaged to his grandfather; nor, again, was it to be wondered at that the old man was already acting as actual owner. For never had the oldest Packard had any use for the subtleties and niceties and confusing technicalities of the law. It was his way to see clearly what he wanted, to make up his mind definitely as to a desired result, and then to go after it the shortest way. And that way had never led yet through the law-courts.
These matters were clear. But as he dwelt upon them they were made complex by other considerations hingeing upon him. Most of all he had to take stock of what lay in his own mind and soul, of all that dwelt behind his present purpose.
Riding back to Ranch Number Ten, saying, "It is mine and I mean to have it," was simple enough. But for him actually to commit himself to the line of action which this step would entail would very obviously connote a distinct departure from the familiar, aimless, responsibility-free career of Steve Packard.
If he once sat into the game he'd want to stick for a showdown; if he started out now bucking old man Packard, he would perhaps wind up in the scrap-heap. It was just as well to think things over before he plunged in—which set him musing upon Terry again.
Swerving from yesterday's path, he followed a new trail leading about the edge of the Temple ranch and into the southeastern borders of Ranch Number Ten. At a logging-camp well up on the slope of the mountains just after he had forded the upper waters of Packard's Creek, he breakfasted on warmed-over coffee and greasy hot cakes.
He opened his eyes interestedly as he watched a gang of timberjacks cutting into a forest of his pines.
"Old man Packard's crowd?" he asked the camp cook.
"Sure thing," was the cook's careless answer. Steve Packard rode on, grown more thoughtful than before. But he directed his course this way and that on a speculative tour of investigation, seeking to see the greater part of the big, sprawling ranch, to note just what had been done, just what was being done, before having his talk with Blenham. And so the first stars were out before he came once more to the home corrals.
While Steve was turning down into Packard's Grab from the foot-hills the men working for Ranch Number Ten, having eaten their supper, were celebrating the end of a hard day's work with tobacco smoke and desultory talk.
There were a dozen of them, clear-eyed, iron-muscled, quick-footed to the last man of them. For wherever Packard pay was taken it went into the pockets of just such as these, purposeful, self-reliant, men's men who could be counted on in a pinch and who, that they might be held in the service which required such as they, were paid a better wage than other ranches offered.
Young, most of them, too, boisterous when upon occasion their hands were idle, devil-may-care scalawags who had earned in many a little cattle town up and down the country their title as "that wild gang of Packard's," prone to headlong ways and yet dependable.
There are such men; Packard knew it and sought them out and held them to him. The oldest man there, saving Bill Royce only, was Blenham the foreman, and Blenham had yet to see his thirty-fifth birthday.
Ten years ago, that is to say before he came into the cattle country and found work for Packard, Blenham had been a sergeant in the regular army, had seen something of service on the border. Now, in his dealings with the men under him, he brought here all that he had learned from a military life.
He held himself aloof, was seldom to be found in the bunk-house, making his quarters in the old ranch-house. He was crisp and final in his orders and successful in exacting swift attention when he spoke and immediate obedience when he ordered.
Few of his men liked him; he knew this as well as another and cared not the snap of his big, blunt fingers. There was remarkably little of the sentimental about Blenham. He was a capable lieutenant for such as the master of the Packard millions, he earned and received his increase in wages every year, he got results.
This evening, however, the man's heavy, studied indifference to all about him was ruffled. During the afternoon something had gone wrong and no one yet, save "Cookie" Wilson, had an inkling of what had plunged the foreman into one of his ill-tempered fits.
To-morrow it would be a ranch topic when Cookie could have had ample time to embroider the thin fabric of his surmise; for it had fallen to the cook's lot to answer the bunk-house telephone when there had been a long-distance message for Blenham—and Wilson recognized old man Packard's voice in a fit of rage.
No doubt the foreman of Ranch Number Ten had "slipped up" somewhere, and his chief, in a very few words and those of a brand not to be misunderstood, had taken him to task. At any rate Cookie was swelling with eager conjecture and Blenham was in an evil mood. All evening his spleen had been rising in his throat, near choking him; now suddenly he spewed it upon Bill Royce.
"Royce!" he burst out abruptly.
The blind man was lying upon the edge of his bunk at the far end of the room, smoking his pipe. He stirred uneasily.
"Well?" he asked. "What is it?"
"Cool old cucumber, ain't you?" jeered Blenham. "Layin' there like a bag of mush while you listen to me. Damn you, when I talk to you, stand up!"
Royce's form stiffened perceptibly and his lips tightened about the stem of his pipe. But before he could shape his rejoinder there came an unexpected voice from one of the four men just beginning a game of pedro under the swinging lamp, a young voice, impudent, clear-toned, almost musical.
"Tell him to go to hell, Bill," was the freely proffered counsel.
Blenham swung about on his heel, his eyes narrowing.
"That you, Barbee?" he demanded sharply.
"Sure it's me," rejoined Barbee with the same cool impudence. And to the man across the table from him, "Deal 'em up, Spots; you an' me is goin' to pry these two bum gamblers loose from their four-bit pieces real pronto by the good ol' road of high, low, jack, an' the game. Come ahead, Spots-ol'-Spotty."
Blenham stared a moment, obviously surprised by this attitude taken by young Barbee.
"I'll attend to you when I got nothin' else to do, Barbee," he said shortly. And, giving the whole of his attention again to the man on the bunk, "Royce, I said when I talk to you to stand up!"
To the last man of them, even to young Barbee, who had made his youthful pretense at an all-embracing interest in the cards, they turned to watch Bill Royce and see what he would do.
They saw that Royce lay a moment as he was, stiff and rigid to his hands and feet, that his face had gone a fiery red which threw the white of the long scar across his nose into bloodless contrast, that the most obvious thing in the world was that for the moment his mind was torn two ways, dual-purposed, perfectly balanced, so that in the grip of his contending passions he was powerless to stir, a picture of impotence, like a man paralyzed.
"Blenham," he said presently without moving, his voice uncertain and thick and ugly, "Blenham——"
"I said it once," cried Blenham sharply, "an' I said it twice. Which ought to be enough, Bill Royce! Hear me?"
They all watched interestedly. Bill Royce moistened his lips and presented his pitiful spectacle of a once-strong man on the verge of yielding to his master, to the man he hated most on earth. A smile came into Blenham's expectant eyes.
The brief silence was perfect until the youthful Barbee broke it, not by speech but by whistling softly, musically, impudently. And the air which Barbee selected at this juncture, though not drawn from the classics, served its purpose adequately; the song was a favorite in the range-lands, the refrain simple, profane, and sincere. Translated into words Barbee's merry notes were:
"Oh, I don't give a damn for no damn man that don't give a damn for me!"
Blenham understood and scowled at him; Bill Royce's hesitant soul may have drawn comfort and strength from a sympathy wordlessly expressed. At any rate his reply came suddenly now:
"I've took a good deal off'n you, Blenham," he said quietly. "I'd be glad to take all I could. But a man can't stand everything, no, not even for a absent pal. Like Barbee said, you know where you can go."
Cookie Wilson gasped, his the sole audible comment upon an entirely novel situation. Barbee smiled delightedly. Blenham continued to frown, his scowl subtly altered from fierceness to wonder.
"You'll obey orders," he snapped shortly, "or——"
"I know," replied Royce heavily. "Go to it. All you got to do is fire me."
And now the pure wonder of the moment was that Blenham did not discharge Royce in three words. It was his turn for hesitation, for which there was no explanation forthcoming. Then, gripped by a rage which made him inarticulate,—he whirled upon Barbee.
Yellow-haired Barbee at the table promptly stood up, awaiting no second invitation to that look of Blenham's. Were one staging a morality play and in search of the personification of impertinence, he need look no farther than this cocksure youth. He was just at that age when one is determined that there shall be no mistake about his status in the matters of age and worldly experience; in short, something over twenty-one, when the male of the species takes it as the insult of insults to be misjudged a boy. His hair was short—Barbee always kept it close cropped—but for all that it persisted in curling, seeking to express itself in tight little rings everywhere; his eyes were very blue and very innocent, like a young girl's—and he was, all in all, just about as good-for-nothing a young rogue as you could find in a ten days' ride. Which is saying rather a good deal when it be understood that that ten days' ride may be through the cattle country back of San Juan.
"Goin' to eat me alive?" demanded Barbee lightly, "Or roast me first?"
"For two cents," said Blenham slowly, "I'd forget you're just a kid an' slap your face!"
Barbee swept one of the fifty-cent pieces from the table and tossed it to the foreman.
"You can keep the change out'n that," he said contemptuously.
It was nothing new in the experience of Blenham, could be nothing unforeseen for any ranch foreman, to have his authority called into question, to have a rebellious spirit defy him. If he sought to remain master, the foreman's answer must be always the same. And promptly given.
"Royce," said Blenham, his hesitation passed, "you're fired. Barbee, I'll take you on right now."
Few-worded was Blenham, a trick learned from his master. Across the room Bill Royce had floundered at last to his feet, crying out mightily:
"Hi! None o' that, Blenham. It's my fight, yours an' mine, with Barbee jus' buttin' in where he ain't asked. If you want trouble, take a man your size, full-grown. Blind as I am—and you know the how an' the why of it—I'm ready for you. Yes, ready an' anxious."
Here was diversion and the men in the bunkhouse, drawing back against the walls, taking their chairs with them that there might be room for whatever went forward, gave their interest unstintedly. So completely that they did not hear Steve Packard singing far out in the night as he rode slowly toward the ranch-house:
"An' I'd rather hear a kiote howl Than be the King of Rome! An' when day comes—if day does come— By cripes, I'm goin' home! Back home! Hear me comin', boys? Yeee! I said it. Comin' home!"
But in very brief time Steve Packard's loitering pace was exchanged for red-hot haste as the sounds winging outward from the bunk-house met him, stilled his singing, and informed him that men were battling in a fury which must have something of sheer blood-thirst in it. He raced to the closed door, swung down from the saddle, and threw the door open.
He saw Bill Royce being held by two men, fighting at them while he reviled a man whom Steve guessed to be Blenham; he saw Blenham and a curly-haired, blue-eyed boy struggling up and down, striking the savage blows of rage. He came just in time to see Blenham drive a big, brutal fist into the boy's face and to mark how Barbee fell heavily and for a little lay still.
The moment was charged with various emotions, as though with contending electrical currents. Bill Royce, championed by a man he had never so much as seen, had given fully of his gratitude and—they meant the same thing to Bill Royce—of his love; after to-night he'd go to hell for "yellow" Barbee.
Barbee, previsioning defeat at Blenham's hard hand, suffering in his youthful pride, had given birth, deep within him, to an undying hatred. And Blenham, for his own reasons and after his own fashion, was bursting with rage.
"Get up, Barbee," he yelled. "Get up an', so help me——"
"I'm goin' to kill you, Blenham," said Barbee faintly, lifting himself a little, his blue eyes swimming. "With my hands or with a knife or with a gun or anyway; now or to-morrow or some time I'm goin' to kill you."
"They all heard you," Blenham spat out furiously. "You're a fool, Barbee. Goin' to get up? Ever goin' to get up?"
"Turn me loose, boys," muttered Bill Royce. "I've waited long enough; I've stood enough. I been like an ol' woman. Jus' let me an' Blenham finish this."
They had, none of them, so much as noted Steve Packard's entrance. Now, however, he forced them to take stock of him.
"Bill Royce," he said sharply, "keep your shirt on. Barbee, you do the same. Blenham, you talk with me."
"You?" jeered Blenham. "You? Who are you?"
"I'm the man on the job right now," answered Packard crisply. "And from now on, I'm running the Ranch Number Ten, if you want to know. If you want to know anything else, why then you don't happen to be foreman any longer. You're fired! As for foreman under me—my old pardner, Bill Royce, blind or not blind, has his old job back."
Bill Royce grew rigid.
"You ain't—you ain't Stevie come back?" he whispered. "You ain't Stevie!"
With three strides Packard reached him, finding Bill Royce's hand with his.
"Right you are, Bill Royce," he cried warmly as at last his and Royce's hands locked hard.
"I'm fired, you say!" Blenham was storming, his eyes wide. "Fired? Who says so, I want to know?"
"I say so," returned Packard shortly.
"You?" shouted Blenham. "If you mean ol' man Packard has sent you to take my place just because— It's a lie; I don't believe it."
"This outfit doesn't happen to belong to old man Packard—yet," said Steve coolly. "Does it, Royce?"
"Not by a jugful!" answered the blind man joyously. "An' it never will now, Steve! Not now."
Blenham looked mystified. Rubbing his skinned knuckles he glared from Steve to Royce, then to the other faces, no less puzzled than his own.
"Nobody can fire me but ol' man Packard," he muttered heavily, though his tone was troubled. "Without you got an order from him, all signed an' ready for me to read——"
"What I have," cut in Steve crisply, "is the bulge on the situation, Blenham. Ranch Number Ten doesn't belong to the old man; it is the property of his grandson, whose name is Steve Packard. Which also happens to be my name."
"I don't believe it," he snapped. "Expect me to pull my freight at the say-so of the first stranger that blows in an' invites me to hand him my job?" He laughed into the newcomer's face.
Packard studied him a moment curiously, instinctively aware that the time might come when it would be well to have taken stock correctly of his grandfather's lieutenant. Then, before replying, he looked at the faces of the other men. When he spoke it was to them.
"Boys," he said quietly, "this outfit belongs to me. I am Steve Packard, the son of Philip Packard, who owned Number Ten Ranch and who mortgaged it but did not sell it to his father—my grandfather. I've just got back home; I mean to have what is mine; I am going to pay the mortgage somehow. I haven't jumped in with my sleeves rolled up for trouble either; had Blenham been a white man instead of a brute and a bully he might have kept his job under me. But I guess you all know the sort of life he has been handing Royce here. Bill taught me how to ride and shoot and fight and swim; pretty well everything I know that's worth knowing. Since I was a kid he's been the best friend I ever had. Anything else you boys would like to know?"
Barbee had risen slowly from the floor.
"Packard's son or the devil's," he said quickly, his eyes never leaving Blenham, "I'm with you."
The man whom, over the card-table, Barbee had addressed as Spotty and whose nickname had obviously been gained for him by the peculiar tufts of white hair in a young, tousled head of very dark brown, cleared his throat and so drew all eyes to himself at his side of the room.
"Bill Royce bein' blind, if you could only prove somehow who you are—" he suggested, tone and expression plainly indicating his willingness, even eagerness, to be convinced.
"Even if I can't see him," said Royce, his own voice eager, "I know! An' I can prove it for my part by a couple of little questions—if you boys will take my word for it?"
"Shoot," said Spotty. "No man's called you liar yet, Bill."
"Then, Stevie," said Royce, just a shade of anxiety in his look as his sightless eyes roved here and there, "answer me this: What was the first horse you ever rode?"
"A mare," said Steve. "Black Molly."
"Right!" and Royce's voice rang triumphantly. "Next: Who nailed the board over the door? The ol' cedar board?"
"I did. Just before I went away."
"An'," continued Royce, his voice lowered a trifle, "an' what did you say about it, Stevie? I was to know——"
"Coach him up! Tell him what to say, why don't you?" jeered Blenham.
"I don't think I need to," replied Royce quietly. "Do I, Steve?"
"I was pretty much of a kid then, Bill," said Packard, a half-smile coming into his eyes for the first time, a smile oddly gentle. "I had been reading one of the Arabian Nights tales; that's what put it into my head."
"Go ahead, Steve; go ahead!"
"I said that I was going to seek my fortune up and down the world; that the board above the door would be a sign if all went well with me. That as long as I lived it would be there; if I died it would fall."
There was a little, breathless silence. It was broken by Bill Royce's joyous laughter as Bill Royce's big hand smote his thigh.
"Right again, Steve! An' the ol' board's still there. Go look at it; it's still there."
Again all eyes sought Blenham. For a moment he stood uncertain, looking about him. Then abruptly he swept up his hat and went out. And Barbee's laughter, like an evil echo of Royce's, followed him.
BANK NOTES AND A BLIND MAN
"He'd as soon set fire to the hay-barns as not," said Royce. "Better watch him, Steve."
And so Steve, stepping outside, watched Blenham, who had gone swiftly toward the ranch-house and who now swung about sharply and stopped dead in his tracks.
"He's up to something, Bill," conceded Packard. And called quietly to Blenham: "Every step you take on this ranch, I'm right along with you, Blenham."
Whereupon Blenham, his hesitation over, turned abruptly and went down to the corral, saddled, and rode away.
On the heels of the irate foreman's wordless departure Steve Packard and Bill Royce went together to the old ranch-house, where, settled comfortably in two big arm-chairs, they talked far into the night. A sharp glance about him as he lighted a lamp on the table showed Packard dust and disuse everywhere excepting the few untidy signs of Blenham's recent occupancy.
An old saddle sprawled loosely upon the living-room floor, littered about with bits of leather and buckles; from a nail hung a rusty, long-rowelled Mexican spur; on the hearth-stone were many cigarette stumps and an occasional cigar-end. An open door showed a tumbled bed, the covers trailing to the floor.
"I'd give a year off my life for a good look at you, Steve," said Royce a trifle wistfully. "Let's see—thirty-five now, ain't you?"
"Right," answered Packard.
"An' big?" asked Royce. "Six foot or better?"
"A shade better. About an inch and a half."
"Not heavy, though? Kind of lean an' long, like Phil Packard before you?"
Packard nodded; then, with Royce's sightless eyes upon him, he said hastily:
"Right again, Bill; kind of lean and long. You'd know me."
"Sure, I would!" cried Royce eagerly. "A man don't change so all-fired much in a dozen years; don't I remember just how you looked when you cut loose to see the world! Ain't made your pile, have you, Steve?"
Packard laughed carelessly.
"I'm lord and master of a good horse, saddle, bridle, and seventy-odd bucks," he said lightly. "Not much of a pile, Bill."
"An' Number Ten Ranch," added Royce quickly.
"And Number Ten Ranch," Packard agreed. "If we can get away with it."
"Meaning what? How get away with it?"
"It's mortgaged to the hilt, it seems. I don't know for how much yet. The mortgage and a lot of accrued interest has to be paid off. Just how big a job we've got to find out."
"Seen your grandfather yet?"
"No. I should have looked him up, I suppose, before I fired Blenham. But, being made of flesh and blood——"
"I know, I know." And Royce filled his lungs with a big sigh. "Bein' a Packard, you didn't wait all year to get where you was goin'. But there'll be plenty of red tape that can't be cut through; that'll have to be all untangled an' untied. Unless your grandfather'll do the right thing by you an' call all ol' bets off an' give you a free hand an' a fresh start?"
"All of which you rather doubt, eh, Bill?"
Royce nodded gloomily.
"I guess we've gone at things sort of back-end-to," he said regretfully. "You'd ought to have seen him first, hadn't you? An' then you kicked his pet dawg in the slats when you canned Blenham. The old man's right apt to be sore, Steve."
"I shouldn't be surprised," agreed Steve. "Who are the Temples, Bill?"
"Who tol' you about the Temples?" came the quick counter-question.
"Nobody. I stayed at their place last night."
"Didn't take you all year to find her, did it?" he offered bluntly.
"Who?" asked Packard in futile innocence.
"Terry Temple. The finest girl this side the pearly gates an' the pretties'. What kind of a man have you growned to be with the women, Steve?"
"No ladies' man, if that's what's worrying you, old pardner. I don't know a dozen girls in the world. I just asked to know about these people because they're right next-door to us and because they're newcomers since my time."
Again Royce grunted, choosing his own explanation of Packard's interest. But, answering the question put to him, he replied briefly:
"That little Terry-girl can have anything I got; her mother was some class, too, they tell me. I dope it up she just died of shame when she come to know what sort she'd picked for a runnin' mate. An' as for him, he's a twisty-minded jelly-fish. He's absolutely no good. An', if I ain't mistaken some considerable, you'll come to know him real well before long. Watch him, Steve."
"Well," said Packard as Royce broke off, sensing that this was not all to be said of Temple; "let's have it. What else about him?"
But Royce shook his head slowly, while his big, thick fingers filled his pipe.
"We ain't got all night to jus' squat here an' gossip about our neighbors," he said presently. "There's other things to be said before things can be done. First rattle, an' to get goin', I'm much obliged for that little bluff you threw Blenham's way about me being your foreman. What you need an' what you got to have is a man with both eyes wide open. Oh, I know, Steve," as Packard started to speak. "You'd offer me the job if both my legs an' arms was gone, too. But it don't go."
"I'm going to need a man right away," argued Steve. "I'll have to do a lot of running around, I suppose, looking up the law, arranging for belated payments, and so forth. I don't want to leave the ranch without a head. You know the men, you know the outfit."
But Royce, though his lips twitched, was firm.
"I don't know the men any too well either," he said. "They're all your grandfather's hirin'. But they're all live an' they all know the game. I won't swear as to how far you can trust any one of 'em; but you'll have to find that out for yourself as we go on."
"Name one of them for me," was Packard's quiet way of accepting his old foreman's ultimatum. "I'll put him on at least temporarily."
"There's Yellow Barbee," suggested Royce. "Somethin' of a kid, maybe kind of wild an' harum-scarum, maybe not worth much. But he ain't a Blenham man an' he did me a good turn."
Already Packard was on his feet, going to the door.
"Barbee!" he shouted. "Oh, Barbee!"
The bunk-house door opened, emitting its stream of light.
"Call me?" came Barbee's cool young voice, impudent now as always.
"Yes, come here a minute, will you?"
Barbee came, his wide hat far back upon his tight little curls, his swagger pronounced, his sweet blue eyes shining softly—his lips battered and bruised and already swelling.
"Come in and shut the door," said Packard.
Barbee entered and stepped across the room to lounge with his elbow on the chimney-piece, looking curiously from Packard to Royce.
"I'm here to run this outfit myself, Barbee," Packard told him while returning the youth's regard steadily. "But I need a foreman to keep things going when I'm obliged to be away. I gave the job to Royce. He won't have it. He suggests you."
Barbee opened his eyes a trifle wider. Also the quick flush running up into his brown cheeks made him look more boyish than ever, giving him almost a cherubic air. But for all that he managed to appear tolerably unmoved, quite as though this were not the first time he had been offered such a position.
"How much is in it?" was what Barbee said, with vast indifference.
Steve hesitated. Then he frowned. And finally he laughed.
"You've got me there," he admitted frankly. "All the money I've got in the world to-night is right here." He spilled the contents of his pocket upon a table. "There's about seventy-five bucks. Unless I can turn a trick somewhere before pay-day all you boys will have to take your pro rata out of that."
Bill Royce shifted nervously in his chair, opened his mouth, then closed it wordlessly. Barbee shrugged elaborately.
"I'll take a chance," he said. "It would be worth it if I lost; jus' to put one across on Blenham."
"All right," and still Packard eyed young Barbee keenly, wondering just how much ability lay hidden under that somewhat unsatisfactory exterior. "You can go back to the boys now and tell them that you're boss when I'm not on hand. Before they go to work in the morning you show up here again and we'll talk a lot of things over."
Barbee ducked his head in token of acquiescence and perhaps to hide the glitter in his eyes, and walked on his heels to the door. Packard's voice arrested him there.
"Just one thing, Barbee: I don't want any trouble started. Not with Blenham or with any of old man Packard's men. I know how you feel, but if you work for me you'll have to let me be the one who starts things. Understand?"
The new foreman paused irresolutely. Then, without turning so that Packard might see his face, and with no spoken reply, he ducked his head again and went out, slamming the door after him.
"I ain't sure he's the right man for the job, Steve," began Royce a trifle anxiously. "An' I ain't sure whether he's square or crooked. But I don't know the rest of the men any better an'——"
"I'll watch him, Bill. And, as I've said already, I'm here to do most of the foreman act myself. We'll give Barbee his chance."
He came back to the table from whose top there winked up at him the few gold and silver coins which spelled his working capital, and stood looking at them quizzically.
"I got a yarn to spin, Stevie," came thoughtfully from Royce with a great puff of smoke. "You better listen in on it now—while we're alone."
Packard returned to his chair, made his own smoke, and said quietly:
"Go to it, Bill. I'm listening."
"Barbee's gone, ain't he? An' the door shut?"
"Then pull up close so's I won't have to talk loud an' I'll get it out of my system: Before your father died he wasn't makin' much money, not as much as he was spendin'. He'd tied into some minin'-stock game that he didn't savvy any too well, an' for a long time all I'd been clearin' here he'd been droppin' outside.
"An' the deeper he got in the hole the wilder he played the game: there was times when I didn't believe he cared a tinker's damn what happened. Whenever he needed any cash all he had to do was soak another plaster on the ranch, borrow again from his father. An' ol' Number Ten is plastered thick now, Steve; right square up to the hilt.
"Well, when Phil Packard died he did it like he'd done everything else, like he had lived, makin' a man think he was in a hurry to get a job over an' done with. Ridin' horseback one week an' the nex' week sendin' for me in there." He jerked his head toward a remote room of the big house. "An' he talked to me then about you."
Packard waited for him to go on, offering no comment. Royce, hunched over in his chair, straightened up a little, shook himself, and continued:
"He had drawed some money out'n the bank, all he had left. I dunno what for, but anyways he had it under his pillow alongside his ol' Colt. An' he give it to me, sayin' he was caught sudden an' unexpected by his death, an' for me to take care of it an' see that you got it when you come back. It was in greenbacks, a little roll no bigger'n your thumb, an' when I counted 'em I near dropped dead. Ten little slips of paper, Steve, an' each good for one thousan' bucks! Ten thousan' dollars did Phil Packard slip me that night not a half-hour before he went over. For you. An' I got 'em for you, Steve; I got 'em safe for you."
His big shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh; he ran a toil-hardened hand across his forehead. Packard opened his lips as though to speak, but was silent as Royce continued:
"I took the money, Steve, an' went outside for a smoke, an' my hands was shakin' like I was cold! Ten thousan' bucks in my tail pocket! It was a dark night an' I didn't lose nineteen secon's hidin' the wad in a good safe place. Which," slowly, "was the las' time I ever saw it!"
"I thought you said——"
"I got it safe? I have. But I ain't ever seen anything since that night, Steve. The night your dad died, the night I hid the money, was the night I went blind."
"You haven't told me about that yet, Bill," said Packard gently.
"No; but I'm goin' to now. It's part of the yarn I got to spin to-night. Like I said I took the wad—your father had slipped it back in a flat sort of pocketbook—an' went outside. It was night already an' dark. Ten thousan' bucks for me to keep safe for you!"
Again he ran his hand across his forehead.
"I knew where there was a rock in the corner foundation of the house that I could work loose; where if I put the greenbacks they wouldn't spoil if it rained or even if the house burned down. I stuck 'em in there, got the rock back like it was before, made sure nobody saw me, an' went off by myself for a smoke.
"'Cause why did I take that chance? I didn't take no chances at all, I tell you, Steve! How did I know, your father gettin' delirious at the finish which came downright quick, but he'd give the game away? An' on the ranch then there was men that would do mos' anything for ten thousan', give 'em the show.
"Your gran'father had come over an' he had brought Blenham with him an' his mechanic, Guy Little; an' there was a couple of new men in the outfit I'd picked up myself that I knew was tough gents.
"No! I didn't take no chances, seein' the money was yours an' not mine to fool with. I stuck it in the wall an' I sneaked off an' for three hours I squatted there in the dark with my gun in my hand, waitin' an' watchin'. Which was playing as safe as a man could, wasn't it, Steve?"
Packard got up and came to Royce's side, putting his hand gently on the foreman's shoulder.
"It strikes me you've done rather a good deal for me, Bill," he said quite simply.
"Maybe," said Royce thoughtfully. "But no more'n one pardner ought to do for another; no more'n you'd do for me, Stevie. Don't I know you? Give you the chance you'd do as much for me; eh, boy? Well, here's the rest of the story: Your dad was dead: ol' Hell-Fire was blowin' his nose so you'd hear it a mile an' I was feelin' weak an' sick-like, knowin' all of a sudden that Phil Packard had been damn' good to me an' wantin' to tell him so now it was too late. Late an' dark as it was I went down to the bunk-house, tol' the boys to stick aroun' for orders in the mornin', saddled my horse and beat it for a quiet place where I could think. I never wanted to think so much in my life, Steve. Remember the ol' cabin by the big timber over on the east side?"
"The old McKittrick place? Yes."
"Well, I went there to make a fire in the ol' fireplace an' sit an' think things over. But I got to tell you about a feller name of Johnny Mills. You didn't know him; he's workin' for the Brocky Lane outfit now. Well, Johnny was as good a cow-man as you want, but you always had to watch him that he didn't slip off to go quail-huntin'. With a shot-gun he was the best wing-shot I ever heard a man tell about.
"He used to sneak for the McKittrick cabin where he kep' an ol' muzzle-loadin' shot-gun, an' shot quail aroun' them springs up there when he'd ought to be workin'. Then he'd come in an' brag, tellin' how he'd never missed a shot. The boys, jus' to tease Johnny, had gone to the cabin that very day an' drawed his shot out, jus' leavin' the powder alone so Johnny would think he'd missed when he pulled the trigger an' no birdies dropped.
"See what I'm drivin' at? I tied my horse an' started along the little trail through the wild-holly bushes to the cabin. Somebody was waitin' for me an' give me both barrels square in the face. That's when an' how my lights went out, Steve."
It came as a shock, and Packard paled; Royce had been so long making his explanations and then put the actual catastrophe so baldly that for a moment his hearer sat speechless. Presently—
"Know who did it, Bill?" he asked.
"If I knew—for sure—I'd go get him! But I don't know; not for sure." His big hands clenched until they fairly trembled with their own tenseness. "It's tough to go blind, Steve!"
His hands relaxed; he sat still, staring into that black nothingness which always engulfed him. When he spoke again it was drearily, hopelessly, like a man communing with his own sorrow, oblivious of a listener:
"Yes, it's fair hell to be blind. If there's anything worse I'd like to know what it might be. To be walkin' along in the dark, always in the dark—to stumble an' fall an' hear a man laugh—to pitch head firs' over a box that had been slipped quiet in your way——"
"Blenham did that sort of thing?" demanded Packard sharply.
It would have done Bill Royce good to see the look in his eyes then. Royce nodded.
"Blenham did whatever he could think of," he muttered colorlessly. "An' he could think of a good many things. Just the same—maybe some day——"
"And yet you stayed on, Bill?" when Royce's voice stopped.
"I'd promised your dad I'd be here—with the coin—when you come back. He knew an' I knew you might blow in an' blow out an' never get word unless I was right here all the time. An' ol' man Packard, after I was blind I went to him an' he promised I could stick as long as I just obeyed orders. Which, I've done, no matter what they was.
"But the end's come now; ain't it, Steve, ol' pardner? But to get this tale tol' an' the money in your hands: I didn't know who'd tried to do for me, but I guessed it must have been some one who'd found out somehow about the ten thousan' an' thought I had it on me. When I come to at the cabin an' firs' thing tried to get a chaw of tobacco I foun' my pockets all turned wrong side out. It might have been Johnny Mills himself; he didn't know about the gun bein' fooled with; it might have been Blenham; it might have been Guy Little; it might have been somebody else. But I've thought all along an' I pray God I was right an' that some day I'll know, that it was Blenham."
He rose suddenly.
"Come ahead, Steve," he said, his voice matter of fact as of old. "It's up to you to ride herd on your own simoleons now."
"You've left it in the same place? In the rock foundation-wall?"
"Yes. I couldn't find a safer place."
"And you haven't been back to it all these months?"
"Not until las' Saturday night. It was jus' six months then. I figgered it out I'd make sure once every six months. I went in the middle of the night an' made sure nobody followed me, Steve. Come ahead."
Packard slipped his arm through Royce's and they went side by side. The night was filled with stars; there was no moon. The wall, as they came around the corner of the house, shone palely here and there where a white surface glinted vaguely through the shadows.
"Nobody aroun', is there, Steve?" whispered Royce.
"Nobody," Packard assured him. "Where is it, Bill?"
Royce's hands, groping with the wall, rested at last upon a knob of stone near the base of the foundation. He tugged; the stone, rudely squared, came away, leaving a gaping hole. Royce thrust his hand in, searched briefly, and in a moment brought out a flat wallet clutched tightly.
"Yours, Steve!" he said then, a quick, palpitating note of pure joy in his cry. "Blind as I was, I put it over for you! Here's ten thousan', Steve. An' the chance to get ol' Number Ten back."
Packard was taking the wallet proffered him. Suddenly Royce jerked it back.
"Let me make sure again," he said hastily. "Let me be dead sure I've made good."
He fumbled with the wallet, opened the flap, drew out the contents, a neat pack of folded bank-notes. He counted slowly.
"Ten of 'em," he announced triumphantly as he gave the wallet over to its proper owner.
Packard took them and they went back to the house. The rays of the lamp met them; through the open door, back to the living-room, they walked side by side. The table between them, they sat down. Packard put the wallet down, spread out the ten bank-notes.
"Bill," he said, and there was a queer note in his voice, "Bill, you've gone through hell for me. Don't I know it? And you say I'd do as much for you? Are you sure of it, Bill?"
Royce laughed and rubbed his hands together.
"Dead sure, Stevie," he said.
Packard's eyes dropped to the table. Before him were the ten crisp bank-notes. Each was for one dollar. Ten dollars in all. His heritage, saved to him by Bill Royce.
"Bill, old man," he said slowly, "you've taught me how to play the game. Pray God I can be as white with a pardner as you have been."
And, crumpling the notes with a sudden gesture, he thrust them into his pocket.
THE OLD MOUNTAIN LION COMES DOWN FROM THE NORTH
It was perhaps eight o'clock, the morning blue, cloudless, and still. Packard had conferred briefly with Barbee; the Ranch Number Ten men had gone about their work. Steve and Bill Royce, riding side by side, had mounted one of the flat, treeless hills in the upper valley and were now sitting silent while Royce fumbled with his pipe and Steve sent a long, eager look down across the open meadow-lands dotted with grazing cattle.
Suddenly their two horses and the other horses browsing in a lower field, jerked up their heads, all ears pricked forward. And yet Steve had heard no sound to mar the perfect serenity of the young day. He turned his head a little, listening.
Then, from some remote distance there floated to him a sound strangely incongruous here in the early stillness, a subdued screech or scream, a wild, clamorous, shrieking noise which for the life of him he could not catalogue.
It was faint because it came across so great a distance and yet it was clear; it was not the throbbing cry of a mountain lion, not the scream of a horse stricken with its death, nothing that he had ever heard, and yet it suggested both of these sounds.
"Bill!" he began.
"I heard it," Royce muttered. "An' I've heard it before! In a minute——"
Royce broke off. The sound, stilled a second, came again, seeming already much closer and more hideous. Steve's horse snorted and plunged; some of the colts in the pasture flung up their heels and fled with streaming manes and tails. Royce calmly filled and lighted his pipe.
Stillness again for perhaps ten or twenty seconds. Steve, about to demand an explanation from his companion, stared as once more came the shrieking noise.
"You can hear the blame thing ten miles," grunted Royce. "It's only about half that far away now. Keep your eye glued on the road across the valley where it comes out'n Blue Bird Canon."
And then Steve understood. Into the clear air across the valley rose a growing cloud of dust; through it, out of the canon's shadows and into the sunlight, shot a glistening automobile, hardly more than a bright streak as it sped along the curving down-grade.
"Terry Temple?" gasped young Packard. Royce merely grunted again.
"Jus' you watch," was all he said.
And, needing no invitation, Packard watched. The motor-car's siren—he had never heard another like it, knew that such a thing would not be tolerated in any of the world's traffic centres—sounded again a long, wailing note which went across the valley in billowing echoes.
Then it grew silent as, with the last of the dangerous curves behind it, the long-bodied roadster swung into the valley. Packard, an experienced driver himself, with his own share of reckless blood, opened his mouth and stared.
It was hard to believe that the big, spinning wheels were on the ground at all; the machine seemed more like an aeroplane content with skimming the earth but hungry for speed. Only the way in which it plunged and lurched and swerved and plunged again testified to highly inflated tires battling with ruts and chuck-holes.
"The fool!" he cried as the car negotiated a turn on two wheels with never a sign of lessened speed. "He'll turn turtle. He's doing sixty miles an hour right now. And on these roads——"
"More likely doin' seventy-five," grunted Royce. "Can do ten better'n that. Out on the highway he's done a clean hundred. That car, my boy——"
"He's going into the ditch!" exclaimed Steve excitedly.
The car, racing on, was already near enough for Steve to make out its two passengers, a man bent over the steering-wheel, another man, or boy, for the figure was small, clinging wildly to his place on the running-board, seeming always in imminent danger of being thrown off.
"He's drunk!" snapped Packard angrily. "Of all blind idiots!"
Another strident blast from the horn, that sent staid old cows scurrying this way and that to get out of the way, and the car swerved from the road and took to the open field, headed straight toward the hill where the two horsemen were. Jerking his horse about, Steve rode down to meet the new arrivals. And then——
"My God! It's my grandfather! He's gone mad, Bill Royce!"
"No madder'n usual," said Royce.
The car came to a sudden stop. The man on the running-board—he had a man's face, keen and sharp-eyed and eager, and the body of a slight boy—jumped down from his place and in a flash disappeared under the engine. The man at the wheel straightened up and got down, stretching his legs. Steve, swinging down from his saddle, and coming forward, measured him with wondering eyes.
And he was a man for men to look at, was old man Packard. Full of years, he was no less full of vigor, hale and stalwart and breathing power. A great white beard, cut square, fell across his full chest; his white mustache was curled upward now as fiercely as fifty years ago when he had been a man for women to look at, too.
He was dressed as Steve had always seen him, in black corduroy breeches, high black boots, broad black hat—a man standing upward of six feet, carrying himself as straight as a ramrod, his chest as powerful as a blacksmith's bellows, the calf of his leg as thick as many a man's thigh; big, hard hands, the fingers twisted by toil; the face weatherbeaten like an old sea captain's, with eyes like the frozen blue of a clear winter sky.
His voice when he spoke boomed out suddenly, deep and rich and hearty.
"Stephen?" he demanded.
Steve said "Yes" and put out his hand, his eyes shining, the surprising realization upon him that he was tremendously glad to see his father's father once more. The old man took the proffered hand into a hard-locked grip and for a moment held it, while, the other hand on his grandson's shoulder, he looked steadily into Steve's eyes.
"What sort of a man have they made of you, boy?" he asked bluntly. "There's the makings of fool, crook an' white man in all of us. What for a man are you?"
Steve flushed a little under the direct, piercing look, but said steadily—
"Not a crook, I hope."
"That's something, if it ain't everything," snorted the old man as, withdrawing his hand, he found and lighted a long stogie. "Blenham tells me you fired him las' night?"
Young Packard nodded, watching his grandfather's face for the first sign of opposition. But just now the old man's face told nothing.
"Thinking of runnin' the outfit yourself, Stephen?" came the next question quietly.
"Yes. I had intended looking in on you in a day or so to talk matters over. I understand that my father left everything to me and that it is pretty heavily mortgaged to you."