SIX FEET FOUR
by Jackson Gregory
TO E. M. GREGORY
"HERE'S YOUR BOOK"
I The Storm
II The Devil's Own Night
III Buck Thornton, Man's Man
IV The Ford
V The Man from Poison Hole Ranch
VI Winifred Judges a Man
VII An Invitation to Supper
VIII In Harte's Cabin
IX The Double Theft
X In the Moonlight
XI The Bedloe Boys
XII Rattlesnake Pollard
XIII The Ranch on Big Little River
XIV In the Name of Friendship
XV The Kid
XVI A Guarded Conference
XVIII The Dance at Deer Creek Schoolhouse
XIX Six Feet Four!
XX Pollard Talks "Business"
XXI The Girl and the Game
XXII The Yellow Envelope Again!
XXIV The Gentleman from New Mexico
XXV In the Dark
XXVI The Frame-Up
XXVII Jimmie Squares Himself
XXVIII The Show Down
All day long, from an hour before the pale dawn until now after the thick dark, the storm had raged through the mountains. Before midday it had grown dark in the canons. In the driving blast of the wind many a tall pine had snapped, broken at last after long valiant years of victorious buffeting with the seasons, while countless tossing branches had been riven away from the parent boles and hurled far out in all directions. Through the narrow canons the wet wind went shrieking fearsomely, driving the slant rain like countless thin spears of glistening steel.
At the wan daybreak the sound filling the air was one of many-voiced but subdued tumult, like the faraway growling of fierce, hungry, imprisoned beasts. As the sodden hours dragged by the noises everywhere increased steadily, so that before noon the whole of the wilderness seemed to be shouting; narrow creek beds were filled with gushing, muddy water; the trees on the mountainsides shook and snapped and creaked and hissed to the hissing of the racing wind; at intervals the thunder echoing ominously added its boom to the general uproar. Not for a score of years and upward had such a storm visited the mountains in the vicinity of the old road house in Big Pine Flat.
Night, as though it had leaped upon the back of the storm and had ridden hitherward on the wings of the wind all impatience to defy the laws of daylight, was in truth mistress of the mountains a full hour or more before the invisible sun's allotted time of setting. In the storm-smitten, lonely building at the foot of the rocky slope, shivering as though with the cold, rocking crazily as though in startled fear at each gust, the roaring log fire in the open fireplace made an uncertain twilight and innumerable ghostlike shadows. The wind whistling down the chimney, making that eerie sound known locally as the voice of William Henry, came and went fitfully. Poke Drury, the cheerful, one-legged keeper of the road house, swung back and forth up and down on his one crutch, whistling blithely with his guest of the chimney and lighting the last of his coal oil lamps and candles.
"She's a Lu-lu bird, all right," acknowledged Poke Drury. He swung across his long "general room" to the fireplace, balanced on his crutch while he shifted and kicked at a fallen burning log with his one boot, and then hooked his elbows on his mantel. His very black, smiling eyes took cheerful stock of his guests whom the storm had brought him. They were many, more than had ever at one time honoured the Big Pine road house. And still others were coming.
"If Hap Smith ain't forgot how to sling a four horse team through the dark, huh?" continued the landlord as he placed still another candle at the south window.
In architectural design Poke Drury's road house was as simple an affair as Poke Drury himself. There was but one story: the whole front of the house facing the country road was devoted to the "general room." Here was a bar, occupying the far end. Then there were two or three rude pine tables, oil-cloth covered. The chairs were plentiful and all of the rawhide bottom species, austere looking, but comfortable enough. And, at the other end of the barn like chamber was the long dining table. Beyond it a door leading to the kitchen at the back of the house. Next to the kitchen the family bed room where Poke Drury and his dreary looking spouse slept. Adjoining this was the one spare bed room, with a couple of broken legged cots and a wash-stand without any bowl or pitcher. If one wished to lave his hands and face or comb his hair let him step out on the back porch under the shoulder of the mountain and utilize the road house toilet facilities there: they were a tin basin, a water pipe leading from a spring and a broken comb stuck after the fashion of the country in the long hairs of the ox's tail nailed to the porch post.
"You gents is sure right welcome," the one-legged proprietor went on, having paused a moment to listen to the wind howling through the narrow pass and battling at his door and windows. "I got plenty to eat an' more'n plenty to drink, same as usual. But when it comes to sleepin', well, you got to make floors an' chairs an' tables do. You see this here little shower has filled me all up. The Lew Yates place up the river got itself pretty well washed out; Lew's young wife an' ol' mother-in-law," and Poke's voice was properly modified, "got scared clean to pieces. Not bein' used to our ways out here," he added brightly. "Any way they've got the spare bed room. An' my room an' Ma's ... well, Ma's got a real bad cold an' she's camped there for the night. But, shucks, boys, what's the odds, when there's fire in the fire place an' grub in the grub box an' as fine a line of licker as you can find any place I know of. An' a deck or two of cards an' the bones to rattle for them that's anxious to make or break quick ... Hap Smith ought to been here before now. You wouldn't suppose...."
He broke off and looked at those of the faces which had been turned his way. His thought was plain to read, at least for those who understood recent local conditions. Hap Smith had been driving the stage over the mountains for only something less than three weeks; which is to say since the violent taking off of his predecessor, Bill Varney.
Before any one spoke the dozen men in the room had had ample time to consider this suggestion. One or two of them glanced up at the clock swinging its pendulum over the chimney piece. Then they went on with what they were doing, glancing through old newspapers, dealing at cards, smoking or just sitting and staring at nothing in particular.
"The last week has put lots of water in all the cricks," offered old man Adams from his place by the fire. "Then with this cloud-bust an' downpour today, it ain't real nice travellin'. That would be about all that's holdin' Hap up. An' I'm tellin' you why: Did you ever hear a man tell of a stick-up party on a night like this? No, sir! These here stick-up gents got more sense than that; they'd be settin' nice an' snug an' dry like us fellers, right now."
As usual, old man Adams had stated a theory with emphasis and utterly without any previous reflection, being a positive soul, but never a brilliant. And, again quite as usual, a theory stated was naturally to be combated with more or less violence. Out of the innocent enough statement there grew a long, devious argument. An argument which was at its height and evincing no signs of ever getting anywhere at all, when from the night without came the rattle of wheels, the jingle of harness chains and Hap Smith's voice shouting out the tidings of his tardy arrival.
The front door was flung open, lamps and candles and log fire all danced in the sudden draft and some of the flickering flames went out, and the first one of Hap Smith's belated passengers, a young girl, was fairly blown into the room. She, like the rest, was drenched and as she hastened across the floor to the welcome fire trailed rain water from her cape and dress. But her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks rosy with the rude wooing of the outside night. After her, stamping noisily, glad of the light and warmth and a prospect of food and drink, came Hap Smith's other passengers, four booted men from the mines and the cattle country.
To the last man of them in the road house they gave her their immediate and exclusive attention. Briefly suspended were all such operations as smoking, drinking, newspaper reading or card playing. They looked at her gravely, speculatively and with frankly unhidden interest. One man who had laid a wet coat aside donned it again swiftly and surreptitiously. Another in awkward fashion, as she passed close to him, half rose and then sank back into his chair. Still others merely narrowed the gaze that was bent upon her steadily.
She went straight to the fireplace, threw off her wraps and extended her hands to the blaze. So for a moment she stood, her shoulders stirring to the shiver which ran down her whole body. Then she turned her head a little and for the first time took in all of the rude appointments of the room.
"Oh!" she gasped. "I...."
"It's all right, Miss," said Poke Drury, swinging toward her, his hand lifted as though to stop one in full flight. "You see ... just that end there is the bar room," he explained nodding at her reassuringly. "The middle of the room here is the ... the parlour; an' down at that end, where the long table is, that's the dinin' room. I ain't ever got aroun' to the partitions yet, but I'm goin' to some day. An' ... Ahem!"
He had said it all and, all things considered, had done rather well with an impossible job. The clearing of the throat and a glare to go with it were not for the startled girl but for that part of the room where the bar and card tables were being used.
"Oh," said the girl again. And then, turning her back upon the bar and so allowing the firelight to add to the sparkle of her eyes and the flush on her cheeks, "Of course. One mustn't expect everything. And please don't ask the gentlemen to ... to stop whatever they are doing on my account. I'm quite warm now." She smiled brightly at her host and shivered again.
"May I go right to my room?"
In the days when Poke Drury's road house stood lone and aloof from the world in Big Pine Flat, very little of the world from which such as Poke Drury had retreated had ever peered into these mountain-bound fastnesses; certainly less than few women of the type of this girl had ever come here in the memory of the men who now, some boldly and some shyly, regarded her drying herself and seeking warmth in front of the blazing fire. True, at the time there were in the house three others of her sex. But they were ... different.
"May I go right to my room?" she repeated as the landlord stood gaping at her rather foolishly. She imagined that he had not heard, being a little deaf ... or that, possibly, the poor chap was a trifle slow witted. And again she smiled on him kindly and again he noted the shiver bespeaking both chill and fatigue.
But to Poke Drury there had come an inspiration. Not much of one, perhaps, yet he quickly availed himself of it. Hanging in a dusty corner near the long dining table, was an old and long disused guest's book, the official road house register. Drury's wandering eye lighted upon it.
"If you'll sign up, Miss," he suggested, "I'll go have Ma get your room ready."
And away he scurried on his crutch, casting a last look over his shoulder at his ruder male guests.
The girl went hastily as directed and sat down at the table, her back to the room. The book she lifted down from its hanging place; there was a stub of pencil tied to the string. She took it stiffly into her fingers and wrote, "Winifred Waverly." Her pencil in the space reserved for the signer's home town, she hesitated. Only briefly, however. With a little shrug, she completed the legend, inscribing swiftly, "Hill's Corners." Then she sat still, feeling that many eyes were upon her and waited the return of the road house keeper. When finally he came back into the room, his slow hesitating gait and puckered face gave her a suspicion of the truth.
"I'm downright sorry, Miss," he began lamely. "Ma's got somethin' ... bad cold or pneumonia ... an' she won't budge. There's only one more bed room an' Lew Yates's wife has got one cot an Lew's mother-in-law has got the other. An' they won't budge. An' ..."
He ended there abruptly.
"I see," said the girl wearily. "There isn't any place for me."
"Unless," offered Drury without enthusiasm and equally without expectation of his offer being of any great value, "you'd care to crawl in with Ma ..."
"No, thank you!" said Miss Waverly hastily. "I can sit up somewhere; after all it won't be long until morning and we start on again. Or, if I might have a blanket to throw down in a corner ..."
Again Poke Drury left her abruptly. She sat still at the table, without turning, again conscious of many eyes steadily on her. Presently from an adjoining room came Drury's voice, subdued to a low mutter. Then a woman's voice, snapping and querrulous. And a moment later the return of Drury, his haste savouring somewhat of flight from the connubial chamber, but certain spoils of victory with him; from his arm trailed a crazy-quilt which it was perfectly clear he had snatched from his wife's bed.
He led the way to the kitchen, stuck a candle in a bottle on the table, spread the quilt on the floor in the corner, made a veritable ceremony of fastening the back door and left her. The girl shivered and went slowly to her uninviting couch.
Poke Drury, in his big general room again, stood staring with troubled face at the other men. With common consent and to the last man of them they had already tiptoed to the register and were seeking to inform themselves as to the name and habitat of the prettiest girl who had ever found herself within the four walls of Poke Drury's road house.
"Nice name," offered old man Adams whose curiosity had kept stride with his years and who, lacking all youthful hesitation, had been first to get to the book. "Kind of stylish soundin'. But, Hill's Corners?" He shook his head. "I ain't been to the Corners for a right smart spell, but I didn't know such as her lived there."
"They don't," growled the heavy set man who had snatched the register from old man Adams' fingers. "An' I been there recent. Only last week. The Corners ain't so all-fired big as a female like her is goin' to be livin' there an' it not be knowed all over."
Poke Drury descended upon them, jerked the book away and with a screwed up face and many gestures toward the kitchen recalled to them that a flimsy partition, though it may shut out the vision, is hardly to be counted on to stop the passage of an unguarded voice.
"Step down this way, gents," he said tactfully. "Where the bar is. Bein' it's a right winterish sort of night I don't reckon a little drop o' kindness would go bad, huh? Name your poison, gents. It's on me."
In her corner just beyond the flimsy partition, Winifred Waverly, of Hill's Corners or elsewhere, drew the many coloured patch work quilt about her and shivered again.
THE DEVIL'S OWN NIGHT
Hap Smith, the last to come in, opened the front door which the wind snatched from his hands and slammed violently against the wall. In the sudden draft the old newspapers on one of the oil-cloth covered tables went flying across the room, while the rain drove in and blackened the floor. Hap Smith got the door shut and for a moment stood with his back against it, his two mail bags, a lean and a fat, tied together and flung over his shoulder, while he smote his hands together and laughed.
"A night for the devil to go skylarkin' in!" he cried jovially. "A night for murder an' arson an' robbin' graveyards! Listen to her, boys! Hear her roar! Poke Drury, I'm tellin' you, I'm glad your shack's right where it is instead of seventeen miles fu'ther on. An' ... Where's the girl?" He had swept the room with his roving eye; now, dropping his voice a little he came on down the room and to the bar. "Gone to bed?"
As one thoroughly at home here he went for a moment behind the bar, dropped the bags into a corner for safety and threw off his heavy outer coat, frankly exposing the big revolver which dragged openly at his right hip. Bill Varney had always carried a rifle and had been unable to avail himself of it in time; Hap Smith in assuming the responsibilities of the United States Mail had forthwith invested heavily of his cash on hand for a Colt forty-five and wore it frankly in the open. His, by the way, was the only gun in sight, although there were perhaps a half dozen in the room.
"She ain't exactly gone to bed," giggled the garrulous old man Adams, "bein' as there ain't no bed for her to go to. Ma Drury is inhabitin' one right now, while the other two is pre-empted by Lew Yates' wife an' his mother-in-law."
"Pshaw," muttered Hap Smith. "That ain't right. She's an awful nice girl an' she's clean tuckered out an' cold an' wet. She'd ought to have a bed to creep into." His eyes reproachfully trailed off to Poke Drury. The one-legged man made a grimace and shrugged.
"I can't drag Lew's folks out, can I?" he demanded. "An' I'd like to see the jasper as would try pryin' Ma loose from the covers right now. It can't be did, Hap."
Hap sighed, seeming to agree, and sighing reached out a big hairy hand for the bottle.
"She's an awful nice girl, jus' the same," he repeated with head-nodding emphasis. And then, feeling no doubt that he had done his chivalrous duty, he tossed off his liquor, stretched his thick arms high over his head, squared his shoulders comfortably in his blue flannel shirt and grinned in wide good humour. "This here campoody of yours ain't a terrible bad place to be right bow, Poke, old scout. Not a bad place a-tall."
"You said twice, she was nice," put in old man Adams, his bleary, red rimmed ferret eyes gimleting at the stage driver. "But you ain't said who she was? Now..."
Hap Smith stared at him and chuckled.
"Ain't that jus' like Adams for you?" he wanted to know. "Who is she, he says! An' here I been ridin' alongside her all day an' never once does it pop into my head to ask whether she minds the name of Daisy or Sweet Marie!"
"Name's Winifred Waverly," chirped up the old man. "But a name don't mean much; not in this end of the world least ways. But us boys finds it kind of interestin' how she hangs out to Dead Man's Alley. That bein' kind of strange an' ..."
"Poh!" snorted Hap Smith disdainfully. "Her hang out in that little town of Hill's Corners? Seein' as she ain't ever been there, havin' tol' me so on the stage less'n two hours ago, what's the sense of sayin' a fool thing like that? She ain't the kind as dwells in the likes of that nest of polecats an' sidewinders. Poh!"
"Poh, is it?" jeered old man Adams tremulously. "Clap your peep sight on that, Hap Smith. Poh at me, will you?" and close up to the driver's eyes he thrust the road house register with its newly pencilled inscription so close that Hap Smith dodged and was some time deciphering the brief legend.
"Beats me," he grunted, when he had done. He tossed the book to a table as a matter of no moment and shrugged. "Anyways she's a nice girl, I don't care where she abides, so to speak. An' me an' these other boys," with a sweeping glance at the four of his recent male passengers, "is hungrier than wolves. How about it, Poke? Late hours, but considerin' the kind of night the devil's dealin' we're lucky to be here a-tall. I could eat the hind leg off a ten year ol' steer."
"Jus' because a girl's got a red mouth an' purty eyes ..." began old man Adams knowingly. But Smith snorted "Poh!" at him again and clapped him good naturedly on the thin old shoulders after such a fashion as to double the old man up and send him coughing and catching at his breath back to his chair by the fire.
Poke Drury, staring strangely at Smith, showed unmistakable signs of his embarrassment. Slowly under several pairs of interested eyes his face went a flaming red.
"I don't know what's got into me tonight," he muttered, slapping a very high and shining forehead with a very soft, flabby hand. "I clean forgot you boys hadn't had supper. An' now ... the grub's all in the kitchen an' ... she's in there, all curled up in a quilt an' mos' likely asleep."
Several mouths dropped. As for Hap Smith he again smote his big hands together and laughed.
"Drinks on Poke Drury," he announced cheerfully. "For havin' got so excited over a pretty girl he forgot we hadn't had supper! Bein' that's what's got into him."
Drury hastily set forth bottles and glasses. More than that, being tactful, he started Hap Smith talking. He asked of the roads, called attention to the fact that the stage was several hours late, hinted at danger from the same gentleman who had taken off Bill Varney only recently, and so succeeded in attaining the desired result. Hap Smith, a glass twisting slowly in his hand, declaimed long and loudly.
But in the midst of his dissertation the kitchen door opened and the girl, her quilt about her shoulders like a shawl, came in.
"I heard," she said quietly. "You are all hungry and the food is in there." She came on to the fireplace and sat down. "I am hungry, too. And cold." She looked upon the broad genial face of Hap Smith as upon the visage of an old friend. "I am not going to be stupid," she announced with a little air of taking the situation in hand. "I would be, if I stayed in there and caught cold. Tell them," and it was still Hap Smith whom she addressed, "to go on with whatever they are doing."
Again she came in for a close general scrutiny, one of serious, frank and matter of fact appraisal. Conscious of it, as she could not help being, she for a little lifted her head and turned her eyes gravely to meet the eyes directed upon her. Hers were clear, untroubled, a deep grey and eminently pleasant to look into; especially now that she put into them a little friendly smile. But in another moment and with a half sigh of weariness, she settled into a chair at the fireside and let her gaze wander back to the blazing fire.
Again among themselves they conceded, what by glances and covert nods, that she was most decidedly worth a man's second look and another after that. "Pretty, like a picture," offered Joe Hamby in a guarded whisper to one of the recent arrivals, who was standing with him at the bar. "Or," amended Joe with a flash of inspiration, "like a flower; one of them nice blue flowers on a long stem down by the crick."
"Nice to talk to, too," returned Joe's companion, something of the pride of ownership in his tone and look. For, during the day on the stage had he not once summoned the courage for a stammering remark to her, and had she not replied pleasantly? "Never travelled with a nicer lady." Whereupon Joe Hamby regarded him enviously. And old man Adams, with a sly look out of his senile old eyes, jerked his thin old body across the floor, dragging a chair after him, and sat down to entertain the lady. Who, it would seem from the twitching of her lips, had been in reality wooed out of herself and highly amused, when the interruption to the quiet hour came, abruptly and without warning.
Poke Drury, willingly aided by the hungrier of his guests, had brought in the cold dishes; a big roast of beef, boiled potatoes, quantities of bread and butter and the last of Ma Drury's dried-apple pies. The long dining table had begun to take on a truly festive air. The coffee was boiling in the coals of the fireplace. Then the front door, the knob turned and released from without, was blown wide open by the gusty wind and a tall man stood in the black rectangle of the doorway. His appearance and attitude were significant, making useless all conjecture. A faded red bandana handkerchief was knotted about his face with rude slits for the eyes. A broad black hat with flapping, dripping brim was down over his forehead. In his two hands, the barrel thrust forward into the room, was a sawed-off shotgun.
He did not speak, it being plain that words were utterly superfluous and that he knew it. Nor was there any outcry in the room. At first the girl had not seen, her back being to the door. Nor had old man Adams, his red rimmed eyes being on the girl. They turned together. The old man's jaw dropped; the girl's eyes widened, rather to a lively interest, it would seem, than to alarm. One had but to sit tight at times like this and obey orders....
The intruder's eyes were everywhere. His chief concern, however, from the start appeared to be Hap Smith. The stage driver's hand had gone to the butt of his revolver and now rested there. The muzzle of the short barrelled shotgun made a short quick arc and came to bear on Hap Smith. Slowly his fingers dropped from his belt.
Bert Stone, a quick eyed little man from Barstow's Springs, whipped out a revolver from its hidden place on his person and fired. But he had been over hasty and the man in the doorway had seen the gesture. The roar of the shotgun there in the house sounded like that of a cannon; the smoke lifted and spread and swirled in the draft. Bert Stone went down with a scream of pain as a load of buckshot flung him about and half tore off his outer arm. Only the fact that Stone, in firing, had wisely thrown his body a little to the side, saved the head upon his body.
The wind swept through the open door with fresh fury. Here a lamp went out, there the unsteady flame of a candle was extinguished. The smoke from the shotgun was mingled with much wood smoke whipped out of the fireplace. The man in the doorway, neither hesitating nor hurrying, eminently cool and confident, came into the room. The girl studied him curiously, marking each trifling detail of his costume: the shaggy black chaps like those of a cowboy off for a gay holiday; the soft grey shirt and silk handkerchief to match knotted loosely about a brown throat. He was very tall and wore boots with tall heels; his black hat had a crown which added to the impression of great height. To the fascinated eyes of the girl he appeared little less than a giant.
He stopped and for a moment remained tensely, watchfully still. She felt his eyes on her; she could not see them in the shadow of his hat, but had an unpleasant sensation of a pair of sinister eyes narrowing in their keen regard of her. She shivered as though cold.
Moving again he made his away along the wall and to the bar. He stepped behind it, still with neither hesitation nor haste, and found the two mail bags with his feet. And with his feet he pushed them out to the open, along the wall, toward the door. Hap Smith snarled; his face no longer one of broad good humour. The shotgun barrel bore upon him steadily, warningly. Hap's rising hand dropped again.
Then suddenly all was uproar and confusion, those who had been chained to their chairs or places on the floor springing into action. The man had backed to the door, swept up the mail bags and now suddenly leaped backward into the outside night. Hap Smith and four or five other men had drawn their guns and were firing after him. There were outcries, above them surging the curses of the stage driver. Bert Stone was moaning on the floor. The girl wanted to go to him but for a little merely regarded him with wide eyes; there was a spreading pool on the bare floor at his side, looking in the uncertain light like spilled ink. A thud of bare feet, and Ma Drury came running into the room, her night dress flying after her.
"Pa!" she cried wildly. "You ain't killed, are you, Pa?"
"Bert is, most likely," he answered, swinging across the room to the fallen man. Then it was that the girl by the fire sprang to her feet and ran to Bert Stone's side.
"Who was it? What happened?" Ma Drury asked shrilly.
The men looked from one to another of their set-faced crowd. Getting only silence for her answer Ma Drury with characteristic irritation demanded again to be told full particulars and in the same breath ordered the door shut. A tardy squeal and another like an echo came from the room which harboured Lew Yates's wife and mother-in-law. Perhaps they had just come out from under the covers for air and squealed and dived back again ... not being used to the customs obtaining in the vicinity of Drury's road house as Poke himself had remarked.
Hap Smith was the first one of the men who had dashed outside to return. He carried a mail bag in each hand, muddy and wet, having stumbled over them in the wild chase. He dropped them to the floor and stared angrily at them.
The bulky mail bag, save for the damp and mud, was untouched. The lean bag however had been slit open. Hap Smith kicked it in a sudden access of rage.
"There was ten thousan' dollars in there, in green backs," he said heavily. "They trusted it to me an' Bert Stone to get across with it. An' now ..."
His face was puckered with rage and shame. He went slowly to where Bert Stone lay. His friend was white and unconscious ... perhaps already his tale was told. Hap Smith looked from him to the girl who, her face as white as Bert's, was trying to staunch the flow of blood.
"I said it," he muttered lugubriously; "the devil's own night."
BUCK THORNTON, MAN'S MAN
Those who had rushed into the outer darkness in the wake of the highwayman returned presently. Mere impulse and swift natural reaction from their former enforced inactivity rather than any hope of success had sent them hot-foot on the pursuit. The noisy, windy night, the absolute dark, obviated all possibility of coming up with him. Grumbling and theorising, they returned to the room and closed the door behind them.
Now that the tense moment of the actual robbery had passed there was a general buzzing talk, voices lifted in surmise, a lively excitement replacing the cosy quiet of a few moments ago. Voices from the spare bed room urged Ma Drury to bring an account of the adventure, and Poke's wife, having first escorted the wounded man to her own bed and donned a wrapper and shoes and stockings, gave to Lew Yates's women folk as circumstantial a description of the whole affair as though she herself had witnessed it.
After a while a man here and there began to eat, taking a slab of bread and meat in one hand and a cup of black coffee in the other, walking back and forth and talking thickly. The girl at the fireplace sat stiff and still, staring at the flames; she had lost her appetite, had quite forgotten it in fact. At first from under the hand shading her eyes she watched the men going for one drink after another, the strong drink of the frontier; but after a little, as though this had been a novel sight in the beginning but soon lost interest for her, she let her look droop to the fire. Fresh dry fuel had been piled on the back log and at last a grateful sense of warmth and sleepiness pervaded her being. She no longer felt hunger; she was too tired, her eyelids had grown too heavy for her to harbour the thought of food. She settled forward in her chair and nodded. The talk of the men, though as they ate and drank their voices were lifted, grew fainter and fainter in her ears, further and further away. Finally they were blended in an indistinguishable murmur that meant nothing.... In a doze she caught herself wondering if the wounded man in the next room would live. It was terribly still in there.
She was in that mental and physical condition when, the body tired and the brain betwixt dozing and waking, thought becomes a feverish process, the mind snatching vivid pictures from the day's experience and weaving them into as illogical a pattern as that of the crazy quilt over her shoulders. All day long she had ridden in the swaying, lurching, jerking stage until now in her chair, as she slipped a little forward, she experienced the sensations of the day. Many a time that day as the racing horses obeying the experienced hand of the driver swept around a sharp turn in the road she had looked down a sheer cliff that had made her flesh quiver so that it had been hard not to draw back and cry out. She had seen the horses leaping forward scamper like mad runaways down a long slope, dashing through the spray of a rising creek to take the uphill climb on the run. And tonight she had seen a masked man shoot down one of her day's companions and loot the United States mail.... And in a register somewhere she had written down the name of Hill's Corners. The place men called Dead Man's Alley. She had never heard the name until today. Tomorrow she would ask the exact significance of it....
At last she was sound asleep. She had found comfort by twisting sideways in her chair and resting her shoulder against the warm rock-masonry of the outer edge of the fireplace. She awoke with a start. What had recalled her to consciousness she did not know. Perhaps a new voice in her ears, perhaps Poke Drury's tones become suddenly shrill. Or it may be that just a sudden sinking and falling away into utter silence of all voices, the growing still of hands upon dice cups, all eloquent of a new breathless atmosphere in the room had succeeded in impressing upon her sleep-drugged brain the fact of still another vital, electrically charged moment. She turned in her chair. Then she settled back, wondering.
The door was open; the wind was sweeping in; again old newspapers went flying wildly as though in panicky fear. The men in the room were staring even as she stared, in bewilderment. She heard old man Adams's tongue clicking in his toothless old mouth. She saw Hap Smith, his expression one of pure amazement, standing, half crouching as though to spring, his hands like claws at his sides. And all of this because of the man who stood in the open doorway, looking in.
The man who had shot Bert Stone, who had looted a mail bag, had returned! That was her instant thought. And clearly enough it was the thought shared by all of Poke Drury's guests. To be sure he carried no visible gun and his face was unhidden. But there was the hugeness of him, bulking big in the doorway, the spare, sinewy height made the taller by his tall boot heels, the wide black hat with the drooping brim from which rain drops trickled in a quick flashing chain, the shaggy black chaps of a cowboy in holiday attire, the soft grey shirt, the grey neck handkerchief about a brown throat, even the end of a faded bandana trailing from a hip pocket.
He stood stone-still a moment, looking in at them with that queer expression in his eyes. Then he stepped forward swiftly and closed the door. He had glanced sharply at the girl by the fire; she had shaded her eyes with her hand, the shadow of which lay across her face. He turned again from her to the men, his regard chiefly for Hap Smith.
"Well?" he said lightly, being the first to break the silence. "What's wrong?"
There are moments in which it seems as if time itself stood still. During the spellbound fragment of time a girl, looking out from under a cupped hand, noted a man and marvelled at him. By his sheer physical bigness, first, he fascinated her. He was like the night and the storm itself, big, powerful, not the kind born to know and suffer restraint; but rather the type of man to dwell in such lands as stretched mile after unfenced mile "out yonder" beyond the mountains. As he moved he gave forth a vital impression of immense animal power; standing still he was dynamic. A sculptor might have carved him in stone and named the result "Masculinity."
The brief moment in which souls balanced and muscles were chained passed swiftly. Strangely enough it was old man Adams who precipitated action. The old man was nervous; more than that, bred here, he was fearless. Also fortune had given him a place of vantage. His body was half screened by that of Hap Smith and by a corner of the bar. His eager old hand snatched out Hap Smith's dragging revolver, levelled it and steadied it across the bar, the muzzle seeking the young giant who had come a step forward.
"Hands up!" clacked the old man in tremulous triumph. "I got you, dad burn you!" And at the same instant Hap Smith cried out wonderingly:
"Buck Thornton! You!"
The big man stood very still, only his head turning quickly so that his eyes were upon the feverish eyes of old man Adams.
"Yes," he returned coolly. "I'm Thornton." And, "Got me, have you?" he added just as coolly.
Winifred Waverly stiffened in her chair; already tonight had she heard gunshots and smelled powder and seen spurting red blood. A little surge of sick horror brought its tinge of vertigo and left her clear thoughted and afraid.
"Hands up, I say," repeated the old man sharply. "I got you."
"You go to hell," returned Thornton, and his coolness had grown into curt insolence. "I never saw the man yet that I'm going to do that for." He came on two more quick, long strides, thrust his face forward and cried in a voice that rang out commandingly above the crash of the wind, "Drop that gun! Drop it!"
Old man Adams had no intention of obeying; he had played poker himself for some fifty odd years and knew what bluff meant. But for just one brief instant he was taken aback, fairly shocked into a fluttering indecision by the thunderous voice. Then, before he could recover himself the big man had flung a heavy wet coat into Adams's face, a gun had been fired wildly, the bullet ripping into the ceiling, and Buck Thornton had sprung forward and whipped the smoking weapon from an uncertain grasp. Winifred Waverly, without breathing and without stirring, saw Buck Thornton's strong white teeth in a wide, good humoured smile.
"I know you were just joking but..."
He whirled and fired, never lifting the gun from his side. And a man across the room from him cried out and dropped his own gun and grasped his shoulder with a hand which slowly went red.
Now again she saw Buck Thornton's teeth. But no longer in a smile. He had seemed to condone the act of old Adams as a bit of senility; the look in his eyes was one of blazing rage as this other man drew back and back from him, muttering.
"I'd have killed you then," said Thornton coldly, his rage the cold wrath that begets murder in men's souls. "But I shot just a shade too quick. Try it again, or any other man here draw, and by God, I'll show you a dead man in ten seconds."
He drew back and put the bar just behind him. Then with a sudden gesture, he flung down the revolver which had come from Hap Smith's holster and more recently from old man Adams's fingers, and his hand flashed to his arm pit and back into plain sight, his own weapon in it.
"I don't savvy your game, sports," he said with the same cool insolence. "But if you want me to play just go ahead and deal me a hand."
To the last man of them they looked at him and hesitated. It was written in large bold script upon the faces of them that the girl's thought was their thought. And yet, though there were upward a dozen of them and though Poke Drury's firelight flickered on several gun barrels and though here were men who were not cowards and who did not lack initiative, to the last man of them they hesitated. As his glance sped here and there it seemed to stab at them like a knife blade. He challenged them and stood quietly waiting for the first move. And the girl by the fire knew almost from the first that no hostile move was forthcoming. And she knew further that had a man there lifted his hand Buck Thornton's promise would have been kept and he'd show them a dead man in ten seconds.
"Suppose," said Thornton suddenly, "you explain. Poke Drury, this being your shack.... What's the play?"
Drury moistened his lips. But it was Hap Smith who spoke up.
"I've knowed you some time, Buck," he said bluntly. "An' I never knowed you to go wrong. But ... Well, not an hour ago a man your build an' size an' with a bandana across his face stuck this place up."
"Well?" said Thornton coolly.
"At first," went on the stage driver heavily and a bit defiantly, "we thought it was him come back when you come in." His eye met Thornton's in a long unwavering look. "We ain't certain yet," he ended briefly.
Thornton pondered the matter, his thumb softly caressing the hammer of his revolver.
"So that's it, is it?" he said finally.
"That's it," returned Hap Smith.
"And what have you decided to do in the matter?"
Smith shrugged. "We acted like a pack of kids," he said. "Lettin' you get the drop on us like this. Oh, you're twice as quick on the draw as the best two of us an' we know it. An' ... an' we ain't dead sure as we ain't made a mistake."
His candidly honest face was troubled. He was not sure that Thornton was the same man who so short a time ago had shot Bert Stone. It did not seem reasonable to Hap Smith that a man, having successfully made his play, would return just to court trouble.
"If you're on the square, Buck," he said in a moment, "throw down your gun an' let's see the linin' of your pockets!"
"Yes?" retorted Thornton. "What else, Mr. Smith?"
"Let us take a squint at that bandana trailin' out'n your back pocket," said Smith crisply. "If it ain't got deep holes cut in it!"
Now that was stupid, thought Winifred. Nothing could be more stupid, in fact. If this man had committed the crime and had thus voluntarily returned to the road house, he would be prepared. He would have emptied his pockets, he certainly would have had enough brains to dispose of so tell-tale a bit of evidence as a handkerchief with slits let into it.
"Maybe," said Thornton quietly, and she did not detect the contemptuous insolence under the slow words until he had nearly completed his meaning, "you'd like to have me tell you where I'm riding from and why? And maybe you'd like to have me take off my shoes so you can look in them for your lost treasures?" Now was his contempt unhidden. He strode quickly across the room, coming to the fireplace where the girl sat. He took the handkerchief from his pocket, keeping it rolled up in his hand; stooping forward he dropped it into the fire, well behind the back log.
Then for the first time he saw her face plainly. As he had come close to her she had slipped from her chair and stood now, her face lifted, looking at him. His gaze was arrested as his eyes met hers. He stood very still, plainly showing the surprise which he made no slightest effort to disguise. She flushed, bit her lip, went a fiery red. He put up his hand and removed his hat.
"I didn't expect," he said, still looking at her with that intent, openly admiring acknowledgment of her beauty, "to see a girl like you. Here."
The thing which struck her was that still there were men in the room who were armed and distrustful of him and that he had forgotten them. What she could not gauge was the full of the effect she had had upon him. He had marked a female form at the fireside, shawled by a shapeless patchwork quilt; out of it, magically it seemed to his startled fancies, there had stepped a superb creature with eyes on fire with her youth, a superlatively lovely creature, essentially feminine. From the flash of her eyes to the curl of her hair, she was all girl. And to Buck Thornton, man's man of the wide open country beyond the mountains, who had set his eyes upon no woman for a half year, who had looked on no woman of her obvious class and type for two years, who had seen the woman of one half her physical loveliness and tugging charm never, the effect was instant and tremendous. A little shiver went through him; his eyes caught fire.
"These little cotton-tail rabbits," he said to her slowly, without turning his eyes from hers to those of whom he spoke, "haven't any more sense than you'd think to look at them. Once let them get a notion in their heads.... Look here!" he broke off sharply. "You don't think the same way they do, do you?"
"No!" she said hurriedly.
Hurriedly, because for the moment her poise had fled from her and she knew that he must note the high colour in her cheeks. And the colour had come not in response to his words but in quick answer to his look. A young giant of a man, he stood staring at her like some artless boy who at a bend in the road had stopped, breathless, to widen his eyes to the smile of a fairy fresh from fairy land.
And her "No," was the true reply to his question and burst spontaneously from her lips. Her first swift suspicion when she had seen the bulk of him framed against the bleak night had been quite natural. But now that she had marked the man's carriage and had seen his face and looked for one instant deep into his clear eyes, she set her conjecture aside as an absurdity. It was not so much that her reason had risen to demand why a successful highwayman should return into danger and the likelihood of swift punishment. It was rather and simply because she felt that this bronzed young stranger, seeming to her woman's instinct a sort of breezy incarnation of the outdoors, partook of none of the characteristics of the footpad, sneak thief or nocturnal gentleman of the road. An essential attribute of the boldest and most picturesque of that gentry was the quality of deceit and subterfuge and hypocrisy. Consecutive logical thought being, after all, a tedious process, she had had no time to progress from step to step of deduction and inference; he had asked his question with a startling abruptness and as abruptly she had given him her answer. The rest might believe what they chose to believe. She for her part, held Buck Thornton, whoever he might be, guiltless of the earlier affair of the evening. And, moreover, she could quite understand the impulse that sent an innocent man to toss a handkerchief into the fire and let them ponder on the act's significance. The act may have been foolhardy and certainly had the youthful flavour of bravado; none the less in her eyes the man achieved through it a sort of magnificence.
He stood looking at her very gravely and gravely she returned the look. And it was borne in upon the girl's inner consciousness that now and for the first time in her life she had come face to face with a man absolutely without guile or the need thereof. He was in character as he was in physique, or she read him wrongly. He thought his thought straight out and made no pretence of hiding it for the simple and sufficient reason that there was in all the universe no slightest need of hiding it. As she looked straight back into his eyes little flashes of impressions which had fastened upon her mind during the day came back to her, things which he suggested, which were like him. She was very tired and further she was overwrought from the nervous excitement of the evening; hence her mental processes were the quicker and more prone to fly off at wild tangents.... She had seen a tall, rugged cedar on a rocky ridge blown through by the tempest, standing out in clear relief against the sky; this man recalled the scene, the very atmosphere. She had seen a wild swollen torrent hurtling on its way down the mountainside; the man had threatened to become like that, headlong with unbounded passion, fierce and destructive when a moment ago they opposed him.... Again she bit her lip; she was thinking of this huge male creature in hyperboles. Yes; she was overwrought; it was not well to think thusly of any mere male creature.
And yet she but liked him the better and her fancies were smitten anew by what he did now. Having filled his eyes with her as a man athirst may fill himself with water from a brook, he turned abruptly away and left her. He did not tarry to say "Thank you," that she had been almost eager in asserting her belief in his innocence. He did not go back to a futile and perhaps quarrelsome discussion with Hap Smith and old man Adams and the rest. He simply dropped everything where it was, shoved his big revolver out of sight under his left arm-pit and went to the long dining table. There, his back to the room, he helped himself generously to cold meat, bread and luke-warm coffee and ate hungrily.
She sank back into her chair and let her eyes wander to his breadth of shoulder, straightness of back and even to the curl of his hair that cast its dancing shadows upon the wall in front of him. She had never had a man turn his back on her this way, and yet now the accomplished deed struck her in nowise as boorish or rude. He had paid her the tribute of a deep admiration, as clear and strong and unsullied as a racing mountain stream in spring time. The few words which he deemed necessary had passed between them. Then he had withdrawn himself from her attention. Not rude, the act savoured somehow of the downright free bigness of unconvention.
"It's silly, jumping to conclusions, any way," she informed herself. "Why suspect him just because he wears the costume of the country, has the usual red handkerchief in his possession and is tall? There are half a dozen big red handkerchiefs in this room right now ... and this would seem to be the land of tall men."
Only once again did he speak to her that night and then just to say in plain matter-of-fact style: "You'd better lie down there and get some sleep. Good night." And this remark had come only after fifteen minutes of busy preparation on his part and curiosity on hers. He had gone out of the room into the night with no offered explanation and with many eyes following him; men began to show rising signs of excitement and to regret audibly that they had not "gathered him in." But in a few minutes he was back, his arms filled with loose hay from the barn. He spread it out in a corner, down by the long table. The table itself he drew out of the way. On the hay he smoothed out her quilt. Then, after a brief word with Poke Drury, he made another expedition into the night, returning with a strip of weather beaten, patched canvas; this he hung by the corners from the nails he hammered into a beam of the low ceiling, letting the thing drop partition-wise across the room. It had been then that he said quietly: "You'd better lie down there and get some sleep. Good night."
"Good night," she answered him. And as it was with his eyes that again he told her frankly what he thought of her, so was it with her eyes that she thanked him.
The night passed somehow. She lay down and slept, awoke, moved her body for more comfort, slept again. And through her sleep and dreams and wakeful moments she heard the quiet voices of the men who had no beds to go to; that monotonous sound and an occasional clink of glass and bottle neck or the rustling of shuffled cards. Once she got up and looked through a hole in the canvas; she had taken off her shoes and made no noise to draw attention to her spying. It must have been chance, therefore, which prompted Thornton to lift his head quickly and look toward her. The light was all on his side of the room; she knew that he had not heard her and could not see her; the tear in her flimsy wall was scarcely more than a pin-hole. He was playing cards; furthermore he was winning, there being a high stack of blue and red and white chips in front of him and a sprinkling of gold. But she saw no sign of the gambling fever in his eyes. Rather, there was in them a look which made her draw back guiltily; which sent her creeping back to her rude bed with suffused cheeks. He was still thinking of her, solely of her, despite the spoils of chance at his hand....
All night the storm beat at the lone house in the mountain pass, rattling at doors and windows, whistling down the chimney, shaking the building with its fierce gusts. The rain ceased only briefly when the cold congealed it into a flurry of beating hail stones; thereafter came the rain again, scarcely less noisy. And in the morning when she awoke with a start and smelled boiling coffee the wind was still raging, the rain was falling heavily and steadily.
In the dark and with the lamps burning on palely into the dim day she breakfasted. Together with several of the men she ate in the kitchen where a fire roared in an old stove, and where a table was placed conveniently. Ma Drury was about, sniffling with her cold, but cooking and serving her guests sourly, slamming down the enamelled ware in front of them and challenging them with a look to find fault anywhere. She reported that in some mysterious way, for which God be thanked, there were no dead men in her house this morning. Bert Stone was alive and showed signs of continuing to live, a thing to marvel at. And the man whom Buck Thornton had winged, beyond displaying a sore arm and disposition, was for the present a mere negligible and disagreeable quantity.
Hap Smith came in from the barn while she was eating. He was going to start right away. There was no use, however, in her attempting to make the rest of the trip with him. His other passengers would lie over here for a day or two. She looked at him curiously: why should she not go on? It certainly was not pleasant to think of remaining in these cramped quarters indefinitely.
Hap Smith, hastily eating hot cakes and ham, answered briefly and to the point. Mountain streams were all up, filling their narrow beds, spilling over. A rain like this downpour brought them up in a few hours; it would stop raining presently and they'd go down as fast as they had risen. Just two miles from the road house was the biggest stream of all to negotiate, being the upper waters of Alder Creek. It was up to Hap to make it because he represented a certain Uncle Samuel who was not to be stopped by hell or high water; literally that. He'd tie his mail bags in; leave all extras at Poke Drury's, drive his horses into the turbulent river high above the ford and ... make it somehow. It was up to her to stay here.
He gobbled down his breakfast, rolled a fat brown cigarette, buttoned up his coat and went out to his stage. Before he could snap back his brake she was at his side.
"My business is as important to me as Uncle Samuel's is to him," she told him in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. "What is more, I have paid my fare and mean to go through with you."
He saw that she did mean it. He expostulated, but briefly. He was behind time, he knew that already they had sought to argue with her in the house, he recognized the futility of further argument. He had a wife of his own, had Hap Smith. He grunted his displeasure with the arrangement, informed her curtly that it was up to her and that, if they went under, his mail bags would require all of his attention, shrugged his two shoulders at once and high up, released his brake and went clattering down the rocky road. The girl cast a quick look behind her as they drew away from the road house; she had not seen Buck Thornton this morning and wondered if he had been loitering about the barn or had turned back into the mountains or had ridden ahead.
Alder Creek was a mad rush and swirl of muddy water; the swish and hiss of it smote their ears five minutes before they saw the brown, writhing thing itself. The girl tensed on her seat; her breathing was momentarily suspended; her cheek went a little pale. Then, conscious of a quick measuring look from the stage driver, she said as quietly as she could:
"It doesn't look inviting, does it?"
Hap Smith grunted and gave his attention forthwith and solely to the dexterous handling of his tugging reins. He knew the crossing; had made it with one sort of a team and another many times in his life. But he had never seen it so swollen and threatening and he had never heard its hissing sound upgathered into such a booming roar as now greeted them. He stopped his team and looked from under drawn brows at the water.
"You'd better get out," he said shortly.
"But I won't!" she retorted hurriedly. "And, since we are going to make the crossing ... go ahead, quick!"
He winked both eyes at the rain driving into his face and sat still, measuring his chances. While he did so she looked up and down; not a hundred paces from them, upstream on the near bank, the figure of a man loomed unnaturally large in the wet air. He was mounted upon a tall, rangy horse that might have been foaled just for the purpose of carrying a man of his ilk, a pale yellow-sorrel whose two forefeet, had it not been for the mud, would have shone whitely. She wondered what he was doing there. His attitude was that of one who was patiently waiting.
"Hold on good an' tight," said Smith suddenly. "I'm goin' to tackle it."
She gripped the back of the seat firmly, braced her feet, set her teeth together, a little in quick fear, a great deal in determination. Smith swung his team upstream fifty paces, then in a short arc out and away from the creek; then, getting their heads again to the stream he called to them, one by one, each of the four in turn, saying crisply: "You, Babe! Charlie! that's the boy! Baldy! You Tom, you Tom! Into it; into it; get up!"
With shaking heads that flung the raindrops from tossing manes, with gingerly lifted forefeet, with a snort here and a crablike sidling dance there, they came down to the water's edge at a brisk trot. The off-lead, Charlie, fought shy and snorted again; the long whip in Hap Smith's hand shot out, uncurled, flicked Charlie's side, and with a last defiant shake of the head the big bay drove his obedient neck into his collar and splashed mightily in the muddy current. Babe plunged forward at his side; the two other horses followed as they were in the habit of following.
The girl, fascinated, saw the water curl and eddy and whiten about their knees; she saw it surge onward and rise about the hubs of the slow turning wheels. Higher it came and higher until the rushing sound of it filled her ears, the dark yellow flash of it filled her eyes and she sat breathless and rigid.... A quick glance showed her the man, Thornton, still above them on the bank of the stream. She noted that he had drawn a little closer to the water's edge.
They were half way across, fairly in midstream, and Hap Smith, utterly oblivious of his one passenger, cursing mightily, when the mishap came. The mad stream, rolling its rocks and boulders and jagged tree trunks, had gouged holes in the bank here and there and had digged similar holes in the uneven bed itself. Into such a hole the two horses on the lower side floundered, with no warning and with disastrous suddenness. Then went down, until only their heads were above the current. They lost all solid ground under their threshing hoofs and, as they rose a little, began to swim, flailing about desperately. Hap Smith yelled at them, yanked at his reins, seeking to turn them straight down stream for a spell until the hole be passed. But already another horse was in and engulfed, the wagon careened, was whipped about in the furious struggle, a wheel struck a submerged boulder and Hap Smith leaped one way while Winifred Waverly sprang the other as the awkward stage tipped and went on its side.
She knew on the instant that one had no chance to swim here, no matter how strong the swimmer. For the current was stronger than the mere strength of a human being. She knew that if Hap Smith clung tight to his reins he might be pulled ashore in due time, if all went well for him. She knew that Winifred Waverly had never been in such desperate straits. And finally she understood, and the knowledge was infinitely sweet to her in her moment of need, why the man yonder had been sitting his horse so idly in the rain, and just why he had been waiting.
She did not see him as his horse, striking out valiantly, swimming and finding precarious foothold by turns, bore down upon her; she saw only the yellow, dirty current when she saw anything at all. She could not know when, the first time, he leaned far out and snatched at her ... and missed. For at the moment a sucking maelstrom had caught her and whipped her out of his reach and flung her onward, for a little piling the churning water above her head. She did not see when finally he succeeded in that which he had attempted. But she felt his two arms about her and in her heart there was a sudden glow and, though the water battled with the two of them, strangely enough a feeling of safety.
Perhaps it was only because he had planned on the possibility of just this and was ready for it that she came out of Alder Creek alive. He had slipped the loop of his rope about the horn of his saddle, making it secure with an additional half hitch; when he was sure of her he flung himself from the saddle, still keeping the rope in his hand as he took her into his arms. Then, swimming as best he could, seeking to keep her head and his above the water, he left the rest to a certain rangy, yellow-sorrel saddle horse. And as Hap Smith and his struggling team made shore just below the ford, Buck Thornton and Winifred Waverly were drawn to safety by Buck Thornton's horse.
Just as there had been no spoken thanks last night for a kindness rendered, so now on this larger occasion there was no gush of grateful words. He released her slowly and their eyes met. As he turned to help Hap Smith with the frightened horses entangled in their harness, the only words were his:
"A couple of miles farther on you'll pass a ranch house. You can get warm and dry your clothes there. This is the last bad crossing."
And so, lifting his hat, he left her.
THE MAN FROM POISON HOLE RANCH
Dry Town never looked less dry. As Buck Thornton drew rein in front of the one brick building of which the ugly little village could boast, the mud was above his yellow-sorrel's fetlocks. But the rain was over, the sun was out glorious and warm above the level lands and in the air was a miraculous feeling as of spring. It is the way of Dry Town in the matter of seasons to rival in abruptness its denizens' ways in other matters. The last great storm had come and gone and seeds would be bursting on every hand and eagerly now.
Because he loved a good horse, and this rangy sorrel above others, and because further he had been forced to ride the willing animal unusually hard all day yesterday, Thornton today had travelled slowly. So, long ago, he had watched the stage out of sight and now, when finally he drew up in front of the bank, he saw Hap Smith's lumbering vehicle standing down by the stable. From it he let his eyes travel along the double row of ill kept, unpainted houses. Fifty yards away a stranger would have marked only his great height, the lean, clean, powerful physique. But from near by one might have forgotten this matter of physical bigness for another, noting just the man's eyes alone. Very keen, piercing, quick eyes just now, watchful and suspicious of every corner and alley, they more than hinted at a stern vigilance that was more than half positive expectancy.
Only for a moment he sat so. Then he swung down from the saddle and with spurs clanking noisily upon the board sidewalk went into the bank building.
"I want to see Mr. Templeton," he said abruptly to the clerkly looking individual behind the new lattice work. The words were very quietly spoken, the voice rather soft and gentle for so big a man. And yet the cashier turned quickly, looking at him curiously.
"Who shall I say it is?" he demanded.
"This man's town is getting citified mighty fast," the tall man grunted. "I should have brought my cards! Well, just tell him it's Thornton."
"You got it. Buck Thornton, from the Poison Hole ranch."
He spoke lightly, his voice hinting at a vast store of good nature, his eyes, however, losing meanwhile no glint of their stern light as they looked at the man to whom he was talking and beyond him watched the door through which he had entered. The cashier regarded him with new interest.
"You are early, Mr. Thornton," he said, rather more warmly than he had spoken before. "But Mr. Templeton will be glad to see you. He is in his private office. Walk right in."
Thornton stooped, his back to the wall, and swiftly unbuckled his spurs. Carrying them in his left hand he passed along the lattice work partition which shut off the cashier with his books and till, and threw open the door at the end of the short hallway. Here was a sort of waiting room, to judge from the two or three chairs, the square topped table strewn with financial journals and illustrated magazines indiscriminately mixed. He closed the door behind him, standing again for a moment as he had stood out in the street, his eyes keen and watchful as they took swift inventory of the room and its furnishings.
Before him was a second door upon the frosted glass top of which were the stencilled words: J.W. TEMPLETON, President, Private. He took a step toward the door and then stopped suddenly as though the very vehemence of the voice bursting out upon the other side of it had halted him.
"I tell you, Miss Waverly," ... it was Templeton's voice, snappy and irritable, ... "this thing is madness! Pure and simple, unadulterated madness! It's as devoid of sense as a last year's nest of birds; it's as full of danger as a ... a ..."
"Never mind exhausting your similes, Mr. Templeton," came the answer, the girl's voice young and fresh and yet withal firm and a little cool. "I didn't come to ask your advice, you know. And you haven't given me what I did come for. If you ..."
Thornton pushed the door open, sweeping off his hat as he came in, and said bluntly,
"I don't know what you folks are talking about, but I judge it's important. And there's no sense in loose-endish talk when you don't know who's listening."
The square built, square faced man tapping with big square finger ends at the table in front of him whirled about suddenly, his gesture and eyes alike showing his keen annoyance at the interruption. Then when he saw who it was he got to his feet, saying crisply:
"I'm glad it's you. This young woman has got it into her head ..."
"You will remember, Mr. Templeton, that this is in strict confidence?"
Templeton's teeth shut with a click. Thornton turned from him and, with his spurs in one hand, his hat caught in the other, stood looking down upon the owner of the voice that was at once so fresh and young, so coolly determined and vaguely defiant. And as he looked at her there was much speculation in his grave eyes. Odd that he should stumble upon her the first thing. Odd and—natural....
The girl's back was to him. For a moment she did not shift her position the least fraction of an inch, but sat very still, leaning forward in her chair, facing the banker. Then after a little when it was evident that Templeton was going to say nothing more she turned slowly to the new comer, her lashes sweeping upward swiftly as her eyes met his full and steady. And the man from the Poison Hole ranch, his own eyes looking down into hers very gravely, noted many things in the quick, keen way characteristic of him.
He saw that her mouth, red lips about very white teeth, was smiling softly, confidently; and yet that the brown-flecked grey of her eyes was as unsmiling, as gravely speculative as his own eyes were. He saw that her skin was a golden brown from life in the open outdoors, that she had upon the heels of her boots a pair of tiny, sharp rowelled spurs, that a riding quirt hung from her right wrist by its rawhide thong, that her cheeks were a little flushed as though from excitement but that she knew the trick of forbidding her eyes to tell what her excitement was. He saw that her throat, where her neck scarf fell loosely away from it, was very round and white. He saw that while her grey riding habit covered her body it hid none of her body's grace and strength and slender youthfulness.
While his eyes left hers to note these things her eyes had been as busy, running from the man's close cropped dark hair to his mud-spattered boots. And there came into her look just a hint of admiration which the man did not see as she in her swift examination noted the breadth of shoulder, the straight tallness of him, the clean, supple, sinewy form which his loose attire of soft shirt, unbuttoned vest grey with dust, and shaggy chaps, black and much worn, in no way concealed.
"I have come," he was saying now to Templeton, speaking abruptly although his voice was as gentle and low-toned and pleasant as when he had spoken with the cashier, "three days ahead of time. It won't take me a minute to get through. And if you and the young lady will excuse me I'll say my little speech and drift, giving you a free swing for your business. Besides, I'm in a fair sized hurry."
"Certainly," said Templeton immediately, while the girl, smiling now with eyes and lips together, unconcernedly, made no answer. "Miss Waverly is planning to.... Well, I want to talk with her a little more. Well, Thornton," and only now he put out his hand to be gripped quickly and warmly by the other's, "what is it? I'm glad to see you. Everything's all right?"
"Yes. I just dropped in to fix up that second payment."
"Shall I go out while you talk?" The girl had gotten to her feet swiftly. "If you are going to say anything important ..."
"No, you'd better stay," Thornton said, and added jestingly: "I've got nothing confidential on my mind, and since I'm just going to hand Mr. Templeton some money, an almighty big pile of money for me to be carrying around, maybe we'd better have a witness to the transaction."
The banker looked at him in surprise.
"You don't mean that you've got it with you now? That you've just ridden in from the range and have brought it with you ... in cash!"
For answer the cattle man slipped a bronzed hand into his shirt and brought out a small packet done up in a piece of buckskin and tied with a string. He tossed it to the shining table top, where it fell heavily.
"There she is," he said lightly. "Gold and a few pieces of paper. The whole thing. Count it."
Templeton sank back into his chair and stared at him. He put out his hand, lifted the packet, dropped it back upon the table, stared again, and then burst out irritably:
"Of all the reckless young fools in the county you two are without equals. Buck Thornton, I thought you had some sense!"
"You never can tell," came the quiet rejoinder from unsmiling lips. "I saw a man once I thought had sense and I found out afterwards he ran sheep. Now, if you'll see my bet I'll travel."
Templeton's desk shears were already busy. He jerked the packet open flat on the table. There were many twenty dollar pieces, some fives and tens and a little bundle of bank notes. He counted swiftly.
"It's all right. Five thousand dollars," he said crisply. "In full for second payment due, as you say, in three days. I'll note it on the two agreements. And I'll give you a receipt."
The tall man's deep chest rose and fell to a sigh as of relief at having done his errand; he placed his spurs in his hat and his hat upon a chair and began to roll a cigarette. The banker wrote quickly with sputtering pen in a book of receipt blanks, tore out the leaf and passed it across the table.
"There you are, Buck Thornton of the Poison Hole," he said with an increase of irritability in his curt tones. "And now you listen to me; you're a fool! Or else you're so far out of the world over on your ranch that you don't know what's going on. Which is it?"
"I hear a good deal of what's happening," returned Thornton drily.
"Then I suppose you realize that a man who rides day and night, through that country, carrying five thousand dollars with him, and when everybody in the country knows that according to contract he is about due to make a five thousand dollar payment, is acting like a fool with a suicidal mania?"
For a moment Thornton did not answer. He seemed so engrossed in his cigarette building that one might almost suppose that he had not heard. And then, lifting his head suddenly, his eyes keen and hard upon Templeton's, he said casually,
"I dropped in three days ahead of time, didn't I?"
"And the wonder is," snapped Templeton, "that you haven't dropped clean out of the world! If you do a fool thing like this, Buck Thornton, when your last payment is due, you can do it. But I won't go near your funeral!"
Thornton laughed easily, tucked the receipt into his vest pocket, and reached for his hat and spurs.
"I'm obliged, Mr. Templeton," he acknowledged lightly. "But we've got to admit that I got across all right this time. And, as you've heard, I suppose, right under Mr. Bad Man's nose, since I was carrying that little wad last night when Hap Smith got cleaned at Poke Drury's. Well, I'll be going. Just give that rattlesnake Pollard the five thousand and an invitation from me to keep off my ranch, remembering that it doesn't happen to belong to him any more."
He nodded and went to the door. There he turned and looked back at the girl. She had risen swiftly, even coming a step toward him.
"I haven't thanked you ... I ..."
Templeton looked on curiously, an odd twitching at the corners of his large mouth. Thornton threw up a sudden hand.
"No," he said hastily. "You haven't spoiled things by thanking me. And.... We'll see each other again," he concluded in his quietly matter-of-fact way. And, his nod for both of them, he went out.
WINIFRED JUDGES A MAN
There was a puzzled frown in her eyes, a faint flush tingeing her cheeks as, withdrawing her regard from Thornton's departure, she looked to Templeton and asked quickly:
"Why did he call Henry Pollard a rattlesnake?"
A faint smile for a moment threatened to drive the sternness away from Templeton's lips. But it was gone in a quick tightening of the mouth, and he answered briefly.
"He didn't know that you knew Pollard."
"I don't know him," she reminded him coolly. "You will remember that I haven't seen him since I was six years old. I hardly know what he looks like. But you haven't answered me; why did your imprudent giant call him a rattlesnake?"
"They have had business dealings together," he told her vaguely. "Maybe they have disagreed about something. Men out there are a little given to hard words, I think."
She sat silent, leaning forward, tapping at her boot with her quirt. Then quickly, just as the banker was opening his lips to speak of the other matter, she demanded:
"Why did you call him a fool for bringing the money here? It had to be brought, hadn't it?"
"Yes! That's just it. It had to be brought and there is not a man in all of the cattle country here who does not know all about the terms of the contract Thornton and Pollard made. Ten thousand down, five thousand in three days from now, the other five thousand in six months. Why, right now I wouldn't attempt to carry five thousand dollars in cash over that wilderness trail if there were ten times the amount to come to me at the end of it! It's as mad as this thing you want to do."
"He did it."
"Yes," shortly. "He did it." He gathered up the loose money, pushed a button set in the table, and upon the prompt appearance of the cashier said crisply, "Five thousand to apply on the Pollard-Thornton agreement. Put it in the big safe immediately."
"He looks as though he could take care of himself," the girl said thoughtfully when the money had gone.
Templeton whirled about upon her, his eyes blazing.
"Take care of himself!" he scoffed. "What chance has a man to take care of himself when another man puts a rifle ball through his back? What chance had Bill Varney of the Twin Dry Diggings stage only three weeks ago? Varney is dead and the money he was carrying is gone, that's the chance he had! What chance has any man had for the last six months if he carried five hundred dollars on him and any one knew about it? They chased off a dozen steers from Kemble's place not three days ago, you yourself know what happened at Drury's road house last night, and now Buck Thornton rides through the same country with five thousand dollars on him!"
"He did it," she repeated again very softly, her eyes musing.
"And one of these days he's going to find out how simple a matter it is for a gang like the gang operating in broad daylight in this country now to separate a fool and his money! The Lord knows how a simple trick like coming in three days ahead of time fooled them. It won't do it again."
"He is the type of man to succeed," she went on, still musingly.
"We have our own business on our hands," he said abruptly, looking at his watch. "The stage leaves in half an hour. Are you going to be reasonable?"
Then she stood up and smiled at him very brightly.
"The stage is going its way, Mr. Templeton. I am going mine."
Templeton flung down his pen with an access of irritation which brought a flicker of amusement into the bright grey eyes. But the banker's grim mouth did not relax; there was anger in the gesture with which he slammed a blotter down on the big yellow envelope on which his wet pen had fallen. After his carefully precise fashion he was reaching for a fresh, clean envelope when the girl took the slightly soiled one from him.
"Thank you," she said, rising and smiling down at him. "But this will do just as well. And now, if you'll wish me good luck..."
She went out followed by a look of much grave speculation.
Meanwhile Buck Thornton, leading his horse after him, crossed the dusty street to the Last Chance saloon. At the watering trough he watered his horse, and then, slackening the cinch a little, he went inside. In the front part of the long, dreary room was the bar presided over by a gentleman in overalls, shirt sleeves and very black hair plastered close to his low forehead. At the rear was the lunch counter where two Chinamen were serving soup and stew and coffee to half a dozen men. Thornton, with one of his quick, sharp glances which missed nothing in the room, went to the bar.
"Hello, Blackie," he said quietly.
The bartender, who in a leisure moment had been bending in deep absorption over an illustrated pink sheet spread on the bar, looked up quickly. For a short second a little gleam as of surprise shone in his shoe-button eyes. Then he put out his hand, shoving the pink sheet aside.
"Hello, Buck," he cried genially. "Where'd you blow in from?"
"Poison Hole," briefly. He spun a silver dollar on the bar and ignored the hand.
Blackie reached for bottle and glass, and putting them before the cowboy bestowed upon him a shrewd, searching look.
"What's the news out your way, Buck?"
"Nothing." He tossed off his whiskey, took up his change and went on to the lunch counter. Several men looked up at him; one or two nodded. It was evident that the new owner of the Poison Hole was something of a stranger here. He called an order to the Chinaman at the stove, told him that he'd be back in ten minutes and was in a hurry and went out to his horse. The bartender watched him go but said nothing.
Within less than ten minutes Thornton had left his sorrel at the stable, seeing personally the animal had its grain, and had come back to the saloon. Blackie, idle with his gazette unnoticed in front of him, saw him come in this time.
"In town for a little high life, Buck?" he queried listlessly.
"No. Business." He passed on down toward the lunch counter, and then swinging about suddenly came back. "Bank business," he added quietly. "I just paid my second instalment of five thousand dollars cash!"
For a moment he stood staring very steadily into the bartender's eyes, a great deal of significance in his look. Blackie returned his stare steadily.
"You're lucky, Buck," he offered colourlessly.
"Meaning to get the Poison Hole? Yes. It's the best cow range I ever saw."
"Meanin' to pack five thousan' aroun' in your tail pocket an' get away with it with this stick-up gang workin' the country."
Thornton shrugged his shoulders.
"There isn't any gang," he said, speaking as a man who knew. "It's one man with a confederate here and there maybe to keep him here. Every job that has been pulled off yet was a one man job."
Blackie polished his bar and shook his head.
"Jed Macintosh got cleaned out night before last," he retorted. "He'd made a clean-up right in here playin' stud. They got his wad before he'd gone to the end of the street. That was more than a one man job."
"Did Jed see more than one?" demanded Thornton sharply.
"No. Jed didn't see nothin', I guess. But we all seen the trail their horses made goin' through Jed's hayfield. There was three horses any way."
With no answer to this Thornton turned away, washed at the faucet near the back door, and settled his tall form upon one of the high stools at the counter. He ate hungrily, with no remark to the men upon right and left of him. But he heard their scraps of talk, noting that the one topic of conversation here in Dry Town was the work of the "stick-up party" manifesting itself in such episodes as the robbery and murder of Bill Varney, stage driver, the theft of Kemble's cattle, the "cleanin'" of Jed Macintosh and, finally, the affair of last night at Poke Drury's. He listened with what seemed frank and only mild interest.
"It's a funny thing to me," one little dried-up old man with fierce moustaches and very gentle eyes was saying, "what we got a sheriff for. This sort of gun play's been runnin' high for nigh on six months now, an' Cole Dalton ain't boarded anybody in his little ol' jail any worse'n hoboes an' drunks for so long it makes a feller wonder what a jail an' a sheriff is for."
"Give him time, Pop," laughed a young rancher at his side. "You know all that's the matter with Cole Dalton is he's got his election on the Republican ticket, an' you ain't never saw a man yet as wasn't a Demmycrat as you'd admit was any 'count. Give him time. Cole knows what he's doin', an' when he does git his rope on Mr. Badman he ain't goin' to need no jail. Cole'll give him a firs' class funeral an' save the county a board bill."
Pop grunted, sniffed, and got to his feet to go to the door and watch the stage pull out. At the rumble and creak of the great lumbering vehicle and the quick thud of the hoofs of the four running horses several men left the lunch counter and followed him. Buck Thornton, finishing his own meal swiftly, went with the others.
Hap Smith took on fresh mail bags in front of the post-office, slammed back his brake, and with his long whip cracking like pistol shots over his leaders' heads, drove on until he had passed the Last Chance. And then he came to a halt again, his coach rocking and rolling on its great springs, in front of the bank.
"Hi, there," he yelled mightily. "Git a move on, will you? I'm half a day late now."
Mr. Templeton himself appeared on the instant at the door, a small strong box in his hands. He tossed it up into the ready hands of the bull-necked, round-shouldered guard who sat at Hap Smith's side with a rifle between his knees, the two passengers craned their necks with much interest, the guard bestowed the box under the seat, the driver loosened his reins, threw off his brake, and the stage rocked and rumbled down the street, spattering mud on either hand, racing away upon the last leg of its two hundred and fifty mile trip to the last town upon the far border of the great state.
"And Templeton called me a fool!" mused the tall cattle man, a look of vast contempt in his stern eyes.
He stood a little behind the other men, looking over their heads. For only a fleeting second had his glance rested upon the stage at the bank. Then he looked swiftly at the man in front of him. It was Blackie, the bartender. When Blackie turned abruptly Thornton looked squarely into the black eyes, seeing there an unusually beady brightness, something of the hint of a quick frown upon the thin slick line of the eyebrows.
"Driver and guard will both be needing their shooting irons before they see the border, Blackie," Thornton said quietly.
And then with a short, insolent laugh he returned for the hat he had left hanging upon a nail. Blackie, making no answer, followed, going behind his bar. A little dusky red had crept up into his shallow face, his eyes burned hard into Thornton's as the man from the Poison Hole came by him.
"When you goin' back to the range, Buck?" he asked sharply.
"I'm going to start as soon as I can roll a smoke and saddle a horse," Thornton answered him, a little smile in his eyes. And then, as an after thought, "I follow the stage road for about ten miles before I turn off on the trail. Wish I could stick with them clean through."
"What for?" demanded Blackie in the same sharp tone.
"Oh, just to see the fun," Thornton told him lightly. "So long, Blackie."
"You seem to be mighty sure something's goin' to be pulled off this trip."
Thornton hung upon his heel, turning slowly.
"I am, Blackie," he said carelessly. And then, "Say, did you notice the two passengers in the stage?"
"No." He put a great deal of emphasis into the denial. "Who was it?"
"I thought you might have noticed. One of them was that crooked eyed jasper I saw you staking to free drinks the last time I was in town."
He stared straight into the smaller man's eyes, saw the colour deepen in his cheeks, shrugged his big shoulders and went to the door. Several of the men who had come back into the room looked after him curiously, then as though for explanation, into Blackie's narrowed eyes. The bartender's hand dropped swiftly out of sight under his bar. Thornton's back was turned square upon him. And yet, as though he had seen the gesture and it had been full of significance to him, he whirled with a movement even quicker than Blackie's had been, and standing loosely, his hands at his side, looked coolly into the bright black eyes. For a moment no man moved. Then Blackie, with a little sigh which sounded loudly in the quiet room, brought his hand back into sight, letting his fingers tap upon the bar. Thornton smiled, turned again and stepped quickly out of the door.
"As long as they don't get any closer to the Poison Hole it's none of my funeral," he muttered to himself. "But if they do, I know one little man who could do a powerful lot of squealing with the proper inducement!"
Not turning once he passed swiftly down the street toward the stable, his meditative eyes upon the rocking stage sweeping on to the south-east, already drawing close to the first of the wooded foothills. He waited ten minutes, watching his horse eating, and then saddled and rode out toward the hills.
AN INVITATION TO SUPPER
It was hardly noon. Here the county road, cutting straight through the rolling fields, was broad, wet and black, glistening under the sun. Out yonder in front of him the stage, driven rapidly by Hap Smith that he might make up a little of the lost time, topped a gentle rise, stood out briefly against the sky line, shot down into the bed of Dry Creek and was lost to him. A little puzzled frown crept into Thornton's eyes.
"A man would almost say old Pop was right," he told himself. "This state is getting too settled up for this kind of game to be pulled off so all-fired regularly. Cole Dalton must be blind in his off eye.... Oh, hell! It is none of my business. Any way ... not yet."
He pulled his horse out into the trail paralleling the muddy road, jerked his hat down lower over his forehead, slumped forward a little in the saddle, and gave himself over to the sleepy thirty mile ride to Harte's Camp. He rode slowly now, allowing Hap Smith's speeding horses to draw swiftly away ahead of him. He saw the stage once more climbing a distant ridge; then it was lost to him in the steepening hills. A little more than an hour later he turned off to the left, leaving the county road and entering the mouth of the canyon through which his trail led. He would not see the road again although after a while he would parallel it with some dozen miles of rolling land between him and it.
Behind him lay the wide stretch of plain in which Dry Town was set; about him were the small shut-in valleys where the "little fellows" had their holdings and small herds of long horns and saddle ponies. Before him were the mountains with Kemble's place upon their far slope and his own home range lying still farther to the east. There were many streams to ford in the country through which he was now riding, all muddy-watered, laced with white, frothing edgings, but none to rise higher than his horse's belly.
Here there was a tiny valley, hardly more than a cup in the hills, but valuable for its rich feed and for the big spring set in the middle of it. He dismounted, slipped the Spanish bit from his horse's mouth, and waited for the animal to drink. It was a still, sleepy afternoon. The storm had left no trace in the deep blue of the sky; the hills were rapidly drying under the hot sun. Man and horse seemed sleepy, slow moving figures to fit into a glowing landscape, harmoniously. The horse drank slowly, shook its head in half tolerant protest at the flies singing before its eyes, and played with the water with twitching lips as though, with no will to take up the trail again, it sought to deceive its master into thinking that it was still drinking. The man yawned and his drowsy eyes came away from the wood-topped hills before him to the moist earth under foot. For the moment they did not seem the eyes of the Buck Thornton who had ridden to the bank in Dry Town a little before noon, but were gentle and dreamily meditative with all of the earlier sharp alertness gone. And then suddenly there came into them a quick change, a keen brightness, as he jerked his head forward and stared down at the ground at his feet.