E-text prepared by Al Haines
SQUARE DEAL SANDERSON
CHARLES ALDEN SELTZER
Author of The Boss of the Lazy Y, "Beau" Rand, "Drag" Harlan, The Ranchman, etc.
Frontispiece by J. Allen St. John
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers —- New York
Published, March, 1922
[Frontispiece: Out of the valley went Streak, running with long, smooth leaps.]
I The North Trail II A Man's Curiosity III "Square" Deal Sanderson IV In Which a Man Is Sympathetic V Water and Kisses VI Sanderson Lies VII Kisses—A Man Refuses Them VIII The Plotters IX The Little Man Talks X Plain Talk XI The Ultimatum XII Dale Moves XIII A Plot that Worked XIV The Voice of the Coyote XV Dale Pays a Visit XVI The Hand of the Enemy XVII The Trail Herd XVIII Checked by the System XIX A Question of Brands XX Devil's Hole XXI A Man Borrows Money XXII A Man from the Abyss XXIII The Gunman XXIV Concerning a Woman XXV A Man Is Aroused XXVI A Man Is Hanged XXVII The Ambush XXVIII Nyland Meets a Killer XXIX Nyland's Vengeance XXX The Law Takes a Hand XXXI The Fugitive XXXII Winning a Fight XXXIII A Man Leaves Okar XXXIV A Man Gets a Square Deal XXXV A Deal in Love
Square Deal Sanderson
THE NORTH RAID
An hour before, Deal Sanderson had opened his eyes. He had been comfortably wrapped in his blanket; his head had been resting on a saddle seat. His sleep over, he had discovered that the saddle seat felt hard to his cheek. In changing his position he had awakened. His face toward the east, he had seen a gray streak widening on the horizon—a herald of the dawn.
Sanderson found what seemed to be a softer spot on the saddle, snuggled himself in the blanket, and went to sleep again. Of course he had not neglected to take one sweeping glance around the camp while awake, and that one glance had convinced him that the camp was in order.
The fire had long since gone out—there was a heap of white ashes to mark the spot where it had been. His big brown horse—Streak—unencumbered by rope or leather, was industriously cropping the dew-laden blades of some bunch-grass within a dozen yards of him; and the mighty desolation of the place was as complete as it had seemed when he had pitched his camp the night before.
Sanderson reveled in the luxury of complete idleness. He grinned at the widening streak of dawn as he closed his eyes. There would be no vitriolic-voiced cook to bawl commands at him this morning. And no sour-faced range boss to issue curt orders.
In an hour or so—perhaps in two hours—Sanderson would crawl out of his blanket, get his own breakfast, and ride northeastward. He was a free agent now, and would be until he rode in to the Double A to assume his new duties.
Judging by the light, Sanderson had slept a full hour when he again awakened. He stretched, yawned, and grinned at the brown horse.
"You're still a-goin' it, Streak, eh?" he said, aloud. "I'd say you've got a medium appetite. There's times when I envy you quite considerable."
Reluctantly Sanderson sat up and looked around. He had pitched his camp at the edge of a thicket of alder and aspen near a narrow stream of water in a big arroyo. Fifty feet from the camp rose the sloping north wall of the arroyo, with some dwarf spruce trees fringing its edge. Sanderson had taken a look at the section of country visible from the arroyo edge before pitching his camp. There were featureless sand hills and a wide stretch of desert.
Sanderson started to get to his feet. Then he sat down again, stiffening slowly, his right hand slipping quickly to the butt of the pistol at his right hip. His chin went forward, his lips straightened, and his eyes gleamed with cold alertness.
A horseman had appeared from somewhere in the vast space beyond the arroyo edge. Sanderson saw the outlines of animal and rider as they appeared for an instant, partly screened from him by the trees and undergrowth on the arroyo edge. Then horse and rider vanished, going northward, away from the arroyo, silently, swiftly.
Schooled to caution by his long experience in a section of country where violence and sudden death were not even noteworthy incidents of life, and where a man's safety depended entirely upon his own vigilance and wisdom, Sanderson got up carefully, making no noise, slipped around the thicket of alder, crouched behind a convenient rock, huge and jagged, and waited.
Perhaps the incident was closed. The rider might be innocent of any evil intentions; he might by this time be riding straight away from the arroyo. That was for Sanderson to determine.
The rider of the horse—a black one—had seemed to be riding stealthily, leaning forward over the black horse's mane as though desirous of concealing his movements as much as possible. From whom?
It had seemed that he feared Sanderson would see him; that he had misjudged his distance from the gully—thinking he was far enough away to escape observation, and yet not quite certain, crouching in the saddle to be on the safe side in case he was nearer than he had thought.
Sanderson waited—for only a few minutes actually, but the time seemed longer. Then, just when he was mentally debating an impulse to climb to the top of the gully, to see if the rider was in sight, he heard a sound as of a heavy body crashing through some underbrush, and saw two riders skirting the edge of the arroyo near him.
They halted their horses back of the spruce trees near the arroyo edge. The rank undergrowth in the timber prevented them seeing Sanderson's horse—which was further concealed by the thicket of alder. The men, however, did not look into the arroyo. Their attention and interest appeared to be centered upon the actions of the first horseman. Sitting erect in their saddles, they shaded their eyes with their hands and gazed northward.
After a short look, one of the men laughed, unpleasantly.
"Sneakin'—he is," said the one who laughed. "Knows we're campin' on his trail, an' reckons on givin' us the slip. I never thought Bill would go back on his friends thataway. We'll make him sweat, damn him!"
The other cursed, also. "Hoggin' it, he is," he said. "I ain't never trusted him. He won't divvy, eh? Well, he won't need it where he's goin'."
Both laughed. Then one said, coldly: "Well, I reckon we won't take chances on losin' him again—like we did last night. We'll get him right now!"
They urged their horses away from the edge of the gully. Sanderson could hear the clatter of hoofs, receding. He had heard, plainly, all the conversation between the two.
There was a grin of slight relief on Sanderson's face. The men were not aiming at him, but at the first rider. It was clear that all were concerned in a personal quarrel which was no concern of Sanderson's. It was also apparent to Sanderson that the two men who had halted at the edge of the arroyo were not of the type that contributed to the peace and order of the country.
Plainly, they were of the lower strata of riffraff which had drifted into the West to exact its toll from a people who could not claim the protection of a law that was remote and impotent.
Sanderson suspected that the first rider had been concerned in some lawless transaction with the other two, and that the first rider had decamped with the entire spoils. That much was indicated by the words of the two. Dire punishment for the first man was imminent.
Sanderson had no sympathy for the first rider. He felt, though, a slight curiosity over the probable outcome of the affair, and so, working rapidly, he broke camp, threw saddle and bridle on the white horse, strapped his slicker to the cantle of the saddle, and rode the brown horse up the slope of the arroyo, taking the direction in which the three men had disappeared.
A MAN'S CURIOSITY
By the time Sanderson urged the brown horse up the crest of the slope, the men he had determined to follow were far out in the desert. Sanderson could see them, though the distance was considerable, riding the crest of a ridge, directly northeastward. As that was following the general direction in which Sanderson wanted to travel he was highly pleased.
"They're company," he told himself as he rode; "an' I've been a heap lonesome."
The men were not traveling fast. At times, when the first rider was compelled to traverse high ground, Sanderson could see him—horse and rider faintly outlined against the sky. Sanderson would note the figure of the first rider, then watch the point at which the first rider appeared until the others reached that point. Then, noting the elapsed time, he could estimate the distance at which the pursuers followed.
"I reckon they're gainin' on him," was Sanderson's mental comment when an hour later he saw the first rider appear for a moment on the sky line, vanish, reappear for an instant, only to be followed within a few minutes by the figures of the other men.
Sanderson was closing up the space that separated him from the two men, and by that medium he knew they were not traveling rapidly, for the brown horse was loping slowly. Thus he knew that the first man was not yet aware that he was being followed.
But some time later to Sanderson's ears was borne the faint, muffled report of a firearm, and he smiled solemnly.
"That first guy will know, now," he told himself. Sanderson kept steadily on. In half an hour he heard half a dozen rifle reports in quick succession, He could see the smoke puffs of the weapons, and he knew the pursuit was over.
The second riders had brought the first to bay in a section of broken country featured by small, rock-strewn hills. By watching the smoke balloon upward, Sanderson could determine the location of the men.
It seemed to Sanderson that the two had separated, one swinging westward and the other eastward, in an endeavor to render hazardous any concealment the other might find. It was the old game of getting an enemy between two fires, and Sanderson's lips curved with an appreciative grin as he noted the fact.
"Old-timers," he said.
It was not Sanderson's affair. He told himself that many times as he rode slowly forward. To his knowledge the country was cursed with too many men of the type the two appeared to be; and as he had no doubt that the other man was of that type also, they would be doing the country a service were they to annihilate one another.
Sanderson, though, despite his conviction, felt a pulse of sympathy for the first rider. It was that emotion which impelled him to keep going cautiously forward when, by all the rules of life in that country, he should have stood at a distance to allow the men to fight it out among themselves.
Sanderson's interest grew as the fight progressed. When he had approached as far as he safely could without endangering his own life and that of Streak, he dismounted at the bottom of a small hill, trailed the reins over Streak's head and, carrying his rifle, made his way stealthily to the crest of the hill. There, concealed behind an irregularly shaped boulder, he peered at the combatants.
He had heard several reports while dismounting and ascending the hill, and by the time he looked over the crest he saw that the battle was over. He saw the three men grouped about a cluster of rocks on a hill not more than a hundred yards distant. Two of the men were bending over the third, who was stretched out on his back, motionless. It appeared to Sanderson that the two men were searching the pockets of the other, for they were fumbling at the other's clothing and, seemingly, putting something into their own pockets.
Sanderson scowled. Now that the fight was over, he was at liberty to investigate; the ethics of life in the country did not forbid that—though many men had found it as dangerous as interference.
Sanderson stood up, within full view of the two men, and hailed them.
"What's bitin' you guys?" he said.
The two men wheeled, facing Sanderson. The latter's answer came in the shape of a rifle bullet, the weapon fired from the hip of one of the men—a snapshot.
Sanderson had observed the movement almost as soon as it had begun, and he threw himself head-long behind the shelter of the rock at his side as the bullet droned over his head.
If Sanderson had entertained any thought of the two men being representatives of the law, trailing a wrongdoer, that thought would have been dispelled by the action of the men in shooting at him. He was now certain the men were what he had taken them to be, and he grinned felinely as he squirmed around until he got into a position from which he could see them. But when he did get into position the men had vanished.
However, Sanderson was not misled. He knew they had secreted themselves behind some of the rocks in the vicinity, no doubt to wait a reasonable time before endeavoring to discover whether the bullet had accomplished its sinister object.
Sanderson's grin grew broader. He had the men at a disadvantage. Their horses, he had observed before calling to them, were in a little depression at the right—and entirely out of reach of the men.
To get to them they would have to expose themselves on an open stretch between the spot where the horses were concealed and the hill on which they were secreted, and on the open stretch they would be fair targets for Sanderson.
The men had brought Sanderson into the fight, and he no longer had any scruples. He was grimly enjoying himself, and he laid for an hour, flat on his stomach behind the rock, his rifle muzzle projecting between two medium-sized stones near the base of the large rock, his eye trained along the barrel, watching the crest of the hill on which the men were concealed.
The first man was dead. Sanderson could see him, prone, motionless, rigid.
Evidently the two men were doubtful. Certainly they were cautious. But at the end of an hour their curiosity must have conquered them, for Sanderson, still alert and watchful, saw a dark blot slowly appear from around the bulging side of a rock.
The blot grew slowly larger, until Sanderson saw that it appeared to be the crown of a hat. That it was a hat he made certain after a few seconds of intent scrutiny; and that it was a hat without any head in it he was also convinced, for he held his fire. An instant later the hat was withdrawn. Then it came out again, and was held there for several seconds.
Sanderson grinned. "I reckon they think I'm a yearlin'," was his mental comment.
There was another long wait. Sanderson could picture the two men arguing the question that must deeply concern them: "Which shall be the first to show himself?"
"I'd bet a million they're drawin' straws," grinned Sanderson.
Whether that method decided the question Sanderson never knew. He knew, however, that a hat was slowly coming into view around a side of the rock, and he was positive that this time there was a head in the hat. He could not have told now he knew there was a head in the hat, but that was his conviction.
The hat appeared slowly, gradually taking on definite shape in Sanderson's eyes, until, with a cold grin, he noted some brown flesh beneath it, and a section of dark beard.
Sanderson did not fire, then. The full head followed the hat, then came a man's shoulders. Nothing happened. The man stepped from behind the rock and stood out in full view. Still nothing happened.
The man grinned.
"I reckon we got him, Cal," he said. His voice was gloating. "I reckoned I'd got him; he tumbled sorta offish—like it had got him in the guts. That's what I aimed for, anyway. I reckon he done suffered some, eh?" He guffawed, loudly.
Then the other man appeared. He, too, was grinning.
"I reckon we'll go see. If you got him where you said you got him, I reckon he done a lot of squirmin'. Been followin' us—you reckon?"
They descended the slope of the hill, still talking. Evidently, Sanderson's silence had completely convinced them that they had killed him.
But halfway down the hill, one of the men, watching the rock near Sanderson as he walked, saw the muzzle of Sanderson's rifle projecting from between the two rocks.
For the second time since the appearance of Sanderson on the scene the man discharged his rifle from the hip, and for the second time he missed the target.
Sanderson, however, did not miss. His rifle went off, and the man fell without a sound. The other, paralyzed from the shock, stood for an instant, irresolute, then, seeming to discover from where Sanderson's bullet had come, he raised his rifle.
Sanderson's weapon crashed again. The second man shuddered, spun violently around, and pitched headlong down the slope.
Sanderson came from behind the rock, grinning mirthlessly. He knew where his bullets had gone, and he took no precautions when he emerged from his hiding place and approached the men.
"That's all, for you, I reckon," he said.
Leaving them, he went to the top of the hill and bent over the other man. A bullet fairly in the center of the man's forehead told eloquently of the manner of his death.
The man's face was not of so villainous a cast as the others. There were marks of a past refinement on it; as there were also lines of dissipation.
"I reckon this guy was all wool an' a yard wide, in his time," said Sanderson; "but from the looks of him he was tryin' to live it down. Now, we'll see what them other guys was goin' through his clothes for."
Sanderson knelt beside the man. From an inner pocket of the latter's coat he drew a letter—faded and soiled, as though it had been read much. There was another letter—a more recent one, undoubtedly, for the paper was in much better condition.
Sanderson looked at both envelopes, and finally selected the most soiled one. He hesitated an instant, and then withdrew the contents and read:
MR. WILLIAM BRANSFORD,
DEAR BROTHER WILL: The last time I heard from you, you were in Tucson. That was ten years ago, and it seems an awful long time. I suppose it is too much to hope that you are still there, but it is that hope which is making me write this letter.
Will, father is dead. He died yesterday, right after I got here. He asked for you. Do you know what that means? It means he wanted you to come back, Will. Poor father, he didn't really mean to be obstinate, you know.
I shall not write any more, for I am not sure that you will ever read it. But if you do read it, you'll come back, won't you—or write? Please.
Your loving sister,
The Double A Ranch.
Union County, New Mexico.
Sanderson finished reading the letter. Then folding it, he shoved it back into the envelope and gravely drew out the other letter. It bore a later date and was in the same handwriting:
MR. WILLIAM BRANSFORD,
DEAR BROTHER WILL: I was so delighted to get your letter. And I am so eager to see you. It has been such a long, long time, hasn't it? Fifteen years, isn't it? And ten years since I even got a letter from you!
I won't remember you, I am sure, for I am only nineteen now, and you were only fifteen when you left home. And I suppose you have grown big and strong, and have a deep, booming voice and a fierce-looking mustache. Well, I shall love you, anyway. So hurry and come home.
I am sending you a telegraph money order for one thousand dollars, for from the tone of your letter it seems things are not going right with you. Hurry home, won't you?
Sanderson finished reading the letter. He meditated silently, turning it over and over in his hands. The last letter was dated a month before. Evidently Bransford had not hurried.
Sanderson searched all the other pockets, and discovered nothing of further interest. Then he stood for a long time, looking down at the man's face, studying it, his own face expressing disapproval.
"Mebbe it's just as well that he didn't get to the Double A," he thought, noting the coarse, brutal features of the other.
"If a girl's got ideals it's sometimes a mighty good thing the real guy don't come along to disabuse them. William ain't never goin' to get to the Double A."
He buried the body in a gully, then he returned to the other men.
Upon their persons he found about nine hundred dollars in bills of small denomination. It made a bulky package, and Sanderson stored it in his slicker. Then he mounted Streak, turned the animal's head toward the northeast, and rode into the glaring sunshine of the morning.
"SQUARE" DEAL SANDERSON
Three days later, still traveling northeastward, Sanderson felt he must be close to the Double A. Various signs and conclusions were convincing.
In the first place, he had been a week on the trail, and estimating his pace conservatively, that time should bring him within easy riding distance of the place he had set out to seek. There were so many miles to be covered in so many days, and Streak was a prince of steady travelers.
Besides, yesterday at dusk, Sanderson had passed through Las Vegas. Careful inquiry in the latter town had brought forth the intelligence that the Double A was a hundred and seventy-five miles northeastward.
"Country's short of cow-hands," said Sanderson's informer. "If you're needin' work, an' forty a month looks good to you, why, I'd admire to take you on. I'm German, of the Flyin' U, down the Cimarron a piece."
"Me an' work has disagreed," grinned Sanderson; and he rode on, meditating humorously over the lie.
Work and Sanderson had never disagreed. Indeed, Sanderson had always been convinced that work and he had agreed too well in the past. Except for the few brief holidays that are the inevitable portion of the average puncher who is human enough to yearn for the relaxation of a trip to "town" once or twice a year, Sanderson and work had been inseparable for half a dozen years.
Sanderson's application had earned him the reputation of being "reliable" and "trustworthy"—two terms that, in the lexicon of the cow-country, were descriptive of virtues not at all common. In Sanderson's case they were deserved—more, to them might have been added another, "straight."
Sanderson's trip northeastward had resulted partly from a desire to escape the monotony of old scenes and familiar faces; and partly because one day while in "town" he had listened attentively to a desert nomad, or "drifter," who had told a tale of a country where water was to be the magic which would open the gates of fortune to the eager and serious-minded.
"That country's goin' to blossom!" declared the Drifter. "An' the guy which gets in on the ground floor is goin' to make a clean-up! They's a range there—the Double A—which is right in the middle of things. A guy named Bransford owns her—an' Bransford's on his last legs. He's due to pass out pronto, or I'm a gopher! He's got a daughter there—Mary—which is a pippin, an' no mistake! But she's sure got a job on her hands, if the ol' man croaks.
"They's a boy, somewheres, which ain't no good I've heard, an' if the girl hangs on she's due for an uphill climb. She'll have a fight on her hands too, with Alva Dale—a big rough devil of a man with a greedy eye on the whole country—an' the girl, too, I reckon—if my eyes is any good. I've seen him look at her—oh, man! If she was any relation to me I'd climb Dale's frame sure as shootin'!"
There had been more—the Drifter told a complete story. And Sanderson had assimilated it without letting the other know he had been affected.
Nor had he mentioned to Burroughs—his employer—a word concerning the real reason for his desire to make a change. Not until he had written to Bransford, and received a reply, did he acquaint Burroughs with his decision to leave. As a matter of fact, Sanderson had delayed his leave-taking for more than a month after receiving Bransford's letter, being reluctant, now that his opportunity had come, to sever those relations that, he now realized, had been decidedly pleasant.
"I'm sure next to what's eatin' you," Burroughs told him on the day Sanderson asked for his "time." "You're yearnin' for a change. It's a thing that gets hold of a man's soul—if he's got one. They ain't no fightin' it. I'm sure appreciatin' what you've done for me, an' if you decide to come back any time, you'll find me a-welcomin' you with open arms, as the sayin' is. You've got a bunch of coin comin'—three thousand. I'm addin' a thousand to that—makin' her good measure. That'll help you to start something."
Sanderson started northeastward without any illusions. A product of the Far Southwest, where the ability to live depended upon those natural, protective instincts and impulses which civilization frowns upon, Sanderson was grimly confident of his accomplishments—which were to draw a gun as quickly as any other man had ever drawn one, to shoot as fast and as accurately as the next man—or a little faster and more accurately; to be alert and self-contained, to talk as little as possible; to listen well, and to deal fairly with his fellow-men.
That philosophy had served Sanderson well. It had made him feared and respected throughout Arizona; it had earned him the sobriquet "Square"—a title which he valued.
Sanderson could not have told, however, just what motive had impelled him to decide to go to the Double A. No doubt the Drifter's story regarding the trouble that was soon to assail Mary Bransford had had its effect, but he preferred to think he had merely grown tired of life at the Pig-Pen—Burrough's ranch—and that the Drifter's story, coming at the instant when the yearning for a change had seized upon him, had decided him.
He had persisted in that thought until after the finding of the letters in William Bransford's pockets; and then, staring down at the man's face, he had realized that he had been deluding himself, and, that he was journeying northeastward merely because he was curious to see the girl whom the Drifter had so vividly described.
Away back in his mind, too, there might have been a chivalrous desire to help her in the fight that was to come with Alva Dale. He had felt his blood surge hotly at the prospect of a fight, with Mary Bransford as the storm center; a passion to defend her had got into his soul; and a hatred for Alva Dale had gripped him.
Whatever the motive, he had come, and since he had looked down into William Bransford's face, he had become conscious of a mighty satisfaction. The two men who had trailed Bransford had been cold-blooded murderers, and he had avenged Bransford completely. That could not have happened if he had not yielded to the impulse to go to the Double A.
He was glad he had decided to go. He was now the bearer of ill news, but he was convinced that the girl would want to know about her brother—and he must tell her. And now, too, he was convinced that his journey to the Double A had been previously arranged—by Fate, or whatever Providence controls the destinies of humans.
And that conviction helped him to fight down the sense of guilty embarrassment that had afflicted him until now—the knowledge that he was deliberately and unwarrantedly going to the Double A to interfere, to throw himself into a fight with persons with whom he had no previous acquaintance, for no other reason than that his chivalrous instincts had prompted him.
And yet his thoughts were not entirely serious as he rode. The situation had its humorous side.
"Mostly nothin' turns out as folks figure in the beginnin'," he told himself. "Otherwise everything would be cut an' dried, an' there wouldn't be a heap of fun in the world—for butters-in. An' folks which scheme an' plot, tryin' to get things that belong to other folks, would have it too easy. There's got to be folks that wander around, nosin' into places that they shouldn't. Eh, Streak?"
Streak did not answer, and Sanderson rode on, smiling gravely.
He made a dry camp that night in a sea of mesquite at the edge of a sand plain, although, he knew he could not now be far from the Double A range. And in the early light of the morning he found his judgment vindicated, for stretching before him, still in a northeasterly direction, he saw a great, green-brown level sweeping away from his feet and melting into some rimming mountains—a vast, natural basin of gigantic proportions.
Sanderson was almost at the end of his journey, it was early morning, and he was in no hurry. He leisurely prepared his breakfast, sitting on a flat rock as he ate, and scanning the basin.
Mere bigness had never impressed Sanderson; the West had shown him greater vistas than this mammoth basin. And yet his eyes glowed as he looked out and down at the country that lay, slumbering in the pure white light of the dawn.
He saw, dotting the floor of the basin, the roofs of houses. From his height they seemed to be close together, but Sanderson was not misled, and he knew that they were separated by miles of virgin soil—of sagebrush and yucca, and soapweed and other desert weeds that needed not the magic of water to make them live.
When Sanderson finally mounted Streak, the sun was up. It took Streak two hours to descend the slope leading down into the basin, and when once horse and rider were down, Sanderson dismounted and patted Streak's moist flanks.
"Some drop, eh, Streak?" he said. "But it didn't fool us none. We knowed it was some distance, didn't we? An' they ain't foolin' us about the rest of it, are they? The Drifter said to head toward the Big Peak. The Double A would be right near there—in the foothills. Looks easy, don't it? But I reckon we'll have to hump ourselves to get there by feedin' time, this noon, eh?"
A little later, Streak having rested, Sanderson mounted and rode forward, toward the peak of a majestic mountain that loomed far above them.
IH WHICH A MAN IS SYMPATHETIC
It was shortly after noon when Sanderson, urging Streak to the crest of an isolated excrescence of earth surrounded by a level of sage and cactus, saw within several hundred yards of him a collection of buildings scattered on a broad plain that extended back several hundred yards farther until it merged into the rock-faced wall of a butte that loomed upward many feet.
Sanderson halted Streak on the hilltop to glance around. The buildings, evidently, belonged to the Double A ranch, and the country was all the Drifter had claimed for it.
The big stretch of plain—in fact, the entire basin—could be made fertile by the judicious use of water. Sanderson was not an engineer, but he had sufficient natural knowledge of land to enable him to distinguish good land from bad. Besides, near Phoenix he had inspected a gigantic irrigation project, and had talked long with the engineer in charge, and he had learned many things that would not have interested the average cowpuncher.
There was a break in the wall of the butte south of the group of buildings, and out of the break Sanderson could see water tumbling and splashing from one rock ledge to another until it rushed down, forming quite a large stream as it struck the level and swirled hurriedly between two sloping banks near the buildings.
From where Sanderson sat on Streak he could look far back into the break in the butte. The break made a sort of gorge, which widened as it receded, and Sanderson suspected the presence of another basin beyond the butte—in fact, the Drifter had told him of the presence of another basin.
"She'd make some lake, if she was bottled up!" was Sanderson's mental comment after a long examination.
His gaze became centered upon the buildings and the level surrounding them.
The buildings were ordinary, but the country was rugged and picturesque.
Some foothills—which Sanderson had seen from the far side of the basin that morning—rose from the level toward the south, their pine-clad slopes sweeping sharply upward—a series of gigantic land waves that seemed to leap upward and upward toward the higher peaks of some mountains behind them.
Northward, fringing the edge of the plain that began at the foothills and stretched many miles, were other mountains; eastward the butte extended far, receding, irregular, its jagged walls forming a barrier; southwestward stretched the basin, in a gentle slope that was more noticeable to Sanderson now than it had been while he had been riding during the morning.
The land around the buildings was fertile, for here was water which could be utilized. The land over which Sanderson had been riding all morning, though, was not so fertile; it needed the water that the stream splashing out of the gorge could give it, with proper human manipulation.
All morning Sanderson's thoughts had dwelt upon the serious lack of water in the basin. Now his thoughts grew definitely troubled.
"There's goin' to be hell here—if this thing ain't handled right. The Double A has got lots of water. The other fellows will be wantin' it. They've got to have it."
Sanderson finished his inspection of the place. Then he spoke to Streak, and the big brown horse descended the slope of the hill, struck the level, and cantered slowly toward the ranch buildings near the river.
Sanderson urged the brown horse toward the largest building of the group, and as he rode he straightened in the saddle, rearranged his neckerchief and brushed some of the dust from his clothing—for at this minute his thoughts went to the girl—whom he now knew he had come to see.
Sanderson no longer tried to delude himself. A strange reluctance oppressed him, and a mighty embarrassment seized him; his face grew crimson beneath the coat of tan upon it, and his lungs swelled with a dread eagerness that had gripped him.
"I reckon I'm a damn fool!" he told himself as he forced Streak onward; "I'm comin' here, not knowin' why, but still a-comin'." He grinned, mirthlessly, but went forward.
Heading toward the ranchhouse, he passed a huge building—the stable. Swinging wide around one of its corners, he was about to ride onward toward the ranchhouse, when out of the corners of his eyes he saw some men and horses grouped in front of the stable.
He pulled Streak up with a jerk, swung the animal's head around and faced the group. There were five horses, saddled and bridled, standing in front of the stable. Sanderson's eyes noted that in one swift glance. But it was upon a man that Sanderson's gaze centered as Streak came to a halt.
The man dominated. There were other men standing in front of the stable—and two women. But the man upon whom Sanderson's gaze rested was the compelling figure.
He was big—rugged, muscular, massive. He saw Sanderson at about the instant Sanderson saw him, and he faced the latter, his chin thrusting, his lips pouting, his eyes gleaming with cold belligerence. He wore a gray woolen shirt, open at the throat, revealing a strong, wide chest.
He was a tawny giant, exuding a force and virility and a compelling magnetism that gripped one instantly. It affected Sanderson; the sight of the man caused Sanderson's eyes to glow with reluctant admiration.
And yet Sanderson disliked the man; he know instantly that this was Alva Dale, concerning whom the Drifter had spoken; and the glow died out of Sanderson's eyes and was replaced by the steady gleam of premeditated and deliberate hostility.
For an instant there was no word spoken; the glances of the two men met, crossed, and neither man's eyes wavered.
Then the big man spoke, gruffly, shortly, coldly: "What do you want?"
Sanderson smiled faintly. "You runnin' things here?" he said, slowly.
"Hell!" snarled the other, and stepped forward.
"Because if you are," resumed Sanderson, his voice bringing the big man to a halt, "you're the man I'm wantin' to do my gassin' to. If you ain't runnin' things, why, I reckon you ain't in the deal at all."
"Well, I'm runnin' things," sneered the other. "Tell me what you're wantin' or pull your freight out of here, pronto!"
"I'm sure some disturbed over my mistake," grinned Sanderson. "You couldn't be anybody but Bransford, or you wouldn't shoot off your gab that reckless. If you're Bransford, I'm apologizin' to you for talkin' back to you. But if you ain't Bransford, get off your hind legs an' talk like a man!"
The big man stiffened, and his eyes glittered malignantly. He moved his feet slightly apart and let his body fall into a crouch. He held that position, though, not moving a finger, when he saw a saturnine smile wreathe Sanderson's lips, noted the slight motion with which Sanderson edged Streak around a little, caught the slow, gradual lifting of Sanderson's shoulder—the right; which presaged the drawing of the heavy pistol that swung at Sanderson's right hip.
Both men held their positions for some seconds; and the slow, heavy breathing of the big man indicated his knowledge of the violence that impended—the violence that, plainly, Sanderson would not retreat from.
Then the big man's body began to relax, and a tinge of color came into his face. He grinned, malevolently, with forced lightness.
"Hell," he said; "you're damned particular! I'm runnin' things here, but I ain't Bransford!"
"I was reckonin' you wasn't," said Sanderson, mockingly. He now ignored the big man, and fixed his gaze on one of the women—the one he felt must be Mary Bransford.
He had found time, while talking with the big man, to look twice at the two women—and he had discovered they were not women at all, but girls. More, he had discovered that one of them looked as he had pictured her many times during the days since he had heard of her from the Drifter.
She was standing slightly aside from the men—and from the other girl. She was pale, her eyes were big and fright-laden, and since Sanderson's comings she had been looking at him with an intense, wondering and wistful gaze, her hands clasped over her breast, the fingers working stiffly.
Sanderson colored as he looked at her; he was wondering what she would say to him if she knew that he had come to the Double A purposely to see her, and that seeing her he was afflicted with a dismayed embarrassment that threatened to render him speechless.
For she more than fulfilled the promise of what he had expected of her. She was slightly above medium height, though not tall—a lissome, graceful girl with direct, frank eyes.
That was all Sanderson noted. Her hair, he saw, of course—it was done up in bulging knots and folds—and was brown, and abundant, and it made him gulp in admiration of it; but he could not have told what her features were like—except that they were what he expected them to be.
"I reckon you're Mary Bransford, ma'am?" he said to her.
The girl took a step toward him, unclasping her hands.
"Yes," she said rapidly, "It can't be that you—that you——"
The big man stepped between the girl and Sanderson, pushing the girl aside and standing before Sanderson. But he spoke to the girl.
"Look here," he said shortly; "I don't know what you two are goin' to palaver about, but whatever it is it's goin' to wait until what we set about to do is done." He looked at Sanderson. "Stranger, we ain't got no objections to you doin' all the lookin' you want to do. But keep your trap shut. Now, Miss Bransford," he continued, turning to the girl, "we'll get this trial over with. You say them steers which me an' my boys brought over an' put into your corral is Double A steers—that you're sure the brand is yours—an' the earmarks?"
"Ye-es," returned the girl slowly and hesitatingly.
While talking with Sanderson she had unclasped her hands, and now she clasped them again, twining the fingers with a quick, nervous motion. Again her eyes grew wide with fright, and Sanderson saw her looking at the other girl—he saw the other girl stiffen and stand straight, her lips curving scornfully as she returned Miss Bransford's gaze.
Sanderson's lips straightened. And now for the first time he gravely inspected the faces in the group near him.
Two men—cowboys—who stood near the big man, were evidently the "boys" referred to by the latter. Their faces were set and expressionless. Between them stood a rugged, well-built man of about twenty-two or three. His hands were tied behind him, a rope was around his neck, the free end coiled in the hands of one of the two men.
The young man's face was sullen, but his head was held very erect, and his eyes were steady and unwavering as he watched the big man.
The girl at whom Miss Bransford was looking stood near the young man. Sanderson saw her turn from Miss Bransford and look at the young man piteously, her lips quivering suspiciously.
There was another man in the group—an under-sized fellow, pale, emaciated, with big, troubled, and perplexed eyes. Sanderson saw that his hands were clenched, and that his thin lips were pressed so tightly together that they were blue and bloodless.
This man stood slightly apart from the others, as though he had no part in what was going on; though Sanderson could tell from his manner that he was laboring under an intense strain.
Miss Bransford and the big man were the opposing forces in what was transpiring—Sanderson knew that from Miss Bransford's manner of answering the big man's question. Her "yes" had been uttered reluctantly. Her testimony was damaging—she knew it, and her sympathies were with the young man with the rope around his neck.
Sanderson knew nothing of the motives that were actuating the people of this little drama, but he was entirely conscious of the visible forces that were at work.
Plainly, the big man had accused the captive of stealing cattle; he had brought the supposed culprit to face the owner of the stolen stock; he had constituted himself judge and jury, and was determined to hang the young man.
The two men with the big man were noncommittal. The pale, undersized man was a mere onlooker whose sympathies were with the accused. Miss Bransford would have been quite willing to have this young man escape punishment, but she could not deny that the cattle in question belonged to her.
Sanderson was in doubt about the other young woman, though obviously she was closely related to him—a wife, or sister—perhaps a sweetheart.
Sanderson studied the young man's face, comparing it with the big man's, and his lips stiffened. He backed Streak slightly and swung crosswise in the saddle, intense interest seizing him.
The big man grinned, first at Miss Bransford, and then at the other girl.
"I reckon that settles it," he said. "There don't seem to be nothin' more to it. Miss Bransford says the cattle is hers, an' we found them in Ben Nyland's corral. There ain't——-"
"Alva Dale, you are a sneak and a liar!"
This was the girl. She had stepped forward until she was within a short pace from the big man. She stood erect, rigid, her hands clenched at her sides; her chin lifted, her eyes flashing with defiant passion.
Dale smirked at her.
"Peggy Nyland," he said, "you're handin' it to me pretty strong, ain't you? You'd fight for your brother's life, of course. But I represent the law here, an' I've got to do my duty. You won't deny that we found them steers in your brother's corral?"
"No, I can't deny that!" declared the girl passionately. "You found them there. They were there. But Ben did not put them there. Shall I tell you who did? It was you! I heard a noise in the corral during the night—last night! But I—thought it was just our own cattle. And I did not go out to see.
"Oh, how I wish I had! But Ben didn't put the Double A cattle in the corral, for Ben was in the house all the time. He went to bed when I did, and I saw him, sleeping in his bunk, when the noise awakened me!"
The girl stepped closer to Dale, her voice vibrating with scorn and loathing.
"If you didn't put the steers in our corral, you know who did, Alva Dale," she went on. "And you know why they were put there! You didn't do it because you wanted Ben's land—as I've heard you have said; you did it to get Ben out of the way so that you could punish me!
"If I had told Ben how you have hounded me—how you have insulted me, Ben would have killed you long ago. Oh, I ought to have told him, but I was afraid—afraid to bring more trouble to Ben!"
Dale laughed sneeringly as he watched the young man writhe futilely in the hands of his captors.
"Sounds reasonable—an' dramatic," he said. "It'd do some good, mebbe, if they was any soft-headed ninnies around that would believe it. But the law ain't soft-headed. We found them steers in Ben Nyland's corral—some of them marked with Ben's brand—the Star—blottin' out the Double A. An' Miss Bransford admits the steers are hers. They ain't nothin' more to be said."
"Yes, there is, Dale," said Miss Bransford. "It is quite evident there has been a mistake made. I am willing to believe Peggy Nyland when she says Ben was asleep in the cabin all night—with her. At any rate, I don't want any hanging over a few cattle. I want you to let Ben Nyland go."
Dale wheeled and faced Miss Bransford. His face reddened angrily, but he managed to smile.
"It's too late, Miss Bransford. The evidence is all in. There's got to be rules to govern such cases as this. Because you own the steers is no sign you've got a right to defeat the aims of justice. I'd like mighty well to accommodate you, but I've got my duty to consider, an' I can't let him off. Ben Nyland has got to hang, an' that's all there is to it!"
There came a passionate outcry from Peggy Nyland; and then she had her arms around her brother's neck, sobbing that she would never let him be hanged.
Miss Bransford's eyes were blazing with rage and scorn as they challenged Dale's. She walked close to him and said something in a low tone to him, at which he answered, though less gruffly than before, that it was "no use."
Miss Bransford looked around appealingly; first at the pale, anemic little man with big eyes, who shifted his feet and looked uncomfortable; then her gaze went to Sanderson who, resting his left elbow on the pommel of the saddle, was watching her with squinting, quizzical eyes.
There was an appeal in Miss Bransford's glance that made the blood leap to Sanderson's face. Her eyes were shining with an eloquent yearning that would have caused him to kill Dale—if he had thought killing the man would have been the means of saving Ben Nyland.
And then Mary Bransford was at his side, her hands grasping his, holding them tightly as her gaze sought his and held it.
"Won't you please do something?" she pleaded. "Oh, if it only could be! That's a mystery to you, perhaps, but when I spoke to you before I was going to ask you if—if— But then, of course you couldn't be—or you would have spoken before."
Sanderson's eyes glowed with a cold fire. He worked his hands free, patted hers reassuringly, and gently pushed her away from Streak.
He swung down from the saddle and walked to Dale. The big man had his back turned to Sanderson, and when Sanderson reached him he leaned over his shoulder and said gently:
"Look here, Dale."
The latter wheeled, recognizing Sanderson's voice and snarling into the latter's face.
"Well?" he demanded.
Sanderson grinned mildly. "I reckon you've got to let Ben Nyland off, Dale—he ain't guilty. Mebbe I ought to have stuck in my gab before, but I was figurin' that mebbe you wouldn't go to crowdin' him so close. Ben didn't steal no steers; he run them into his corral by my orders."
Dale guffawed loudly and stepped back to sneer at Sanderson. But he had noted the steadiness of the latter's eyes and the sneer faded.
"Bah!" he said. "Your orders! An' who in hell are you?"
"I'm Bill Bransford," said Sanderson quietly, and he grinned mirthlessly at Dale over the two or three feet of space that separated them.
WATER AND KISSES
For several seconds Dale did not speak. A crimson stain appeared above the collar of his shirt and spread until it covered his face and neck, leaving his cheeks poisonously bloated and his eyes glaring.
But the steady eyes and the cold, deliberate demeanor of Sanderson did much to help Dale regain his self-control—which he did, while Mary Bransford, running forward, tried to throw her arms around Sanderson's neck. She was prevented from accomplishing this design by Sanderson who, while facing Dale, shoved the girl away from him, almost roughly.
"There's time for that after we've settled with Dale," he told the girl gruffly.
Dale had recovered; he sneered. "It's easy enough to make a claim like that, but it's another thing to prove it. How in hell do we know you're Bill Bransford?"
Sanderson's smile was maddening. "I ain't aimin' to prove nothin'—to you!" he said. But he reached into a pocket, drew out the two letters he had taken from the real Bransford's pocket, and passed them back to Mary Bransford, still facing Dale.
He grinned at Dale's face as the latter watched Mary while she read the letters, gathering from the scowl that swept over the other's lips that Mary had accepted them as proof of his identity.
"You'll find the most of that thousand you sent me in my slicker," he told the girl. And while Mary ran to Streak, unstrapped the slicker, tore it open, and secured the money, Sanderson watched Dale's face, grinning mockingly.
"O Will—Will!" cried the girl joyously behind Sanderson.
Sanderson's smile grew. "Seems to prove a heap, don't it?" he said to Dale. "I know a little about law myself. I won't be pressin' no charge against Nyland. Take your rope off him an' turn him free. An' then mebbe you'll be accommodatin' enough to hit the breeze while the hittin's good—for me an' Miss—my sister's sort of figurin' on a reunion—bein' disunited for so long."
He looked at Dale with cold, unwavering eyes until the latter, sneering, turned and ordered his men to remove the rope from Nyland. With his hands resting idly on his hips he watched Dale and the men ride away. Then he shook hands mechanically with Nyland, permitted Peggy to kiss him—which she did fervently, and led her brother away. Then Sanderson turned, to see Mary smiling and blushing, not more than two or three feet distant.
He stood still, and she stepped slowly toward him, the blush on her face deepening.
"Oh," she said as she came dose to him and placed her hands on his shoulders, "this seems positively brazen—for you seem like a stranger to me."
Then she deliberately took both his cheeks in her hands, stood on the tips of her toes and kissed him three or four times, squarely on the lips.
"Why, ma'am—" began Sanderson.
"Mary!" she corrected, shaking him.
"Well, ma'am—Mary, that is—you see I ain't just——"
"You're the dearest and best brother that ever lived," she declared, placing a hand over his mouth, "even though you did stay away for so many years. Not another word now!" she warned as she took him by an arm and led him toward the ranchhouse; "not a word about anything until you've eaten and rested. Why, you look tired to death—almost!"
Sanderson wanted to talk; he wanted to tell Mary Bransford that he was not her brother; that he had assumed the role merely for the purpose of defeating Dale's aim. His sole purpose had been to help Mary Bransford out of a difficult situation; he had acted on impulse—an impulse resulting from the pleading look she had given him, together with the knowledge that she had wanted to save Nyland.
Now that the incident was closed, and Nyland saved, he wanted to make his confession, be forgiven, and received into Mary's good graces.
He followed the girl into the house, but as he halted for an instant on the threshold, just before entering, he looked hack, to see the little, anemic man standing near the house, looking at him with an odd smile. Sanderson flushed and made a grimace at the little man, whereat the latter's smile grew broad and eloquent.
"What's eatin' him, I wonder?" was Sanderson's mental comment. "He looked mighty fussed up while Dale was doin' the talkin'. Likely he's just tickled—like the rest of them."
Mary led Sanderson into the sitting-room to a big easy-chair, shoved him into it, and stood behind him, running her fingers through his hair. Meanwhile she talked rapidly, telling him of the elder Bransford's last moments, of incidents that had occurred during his absence from the ranch; of other incidents that had to do with her life at a school on the coast; of many things of which he was in complete ignorance.
Desperate over his inability to interrupt her flow of talk, conscious of the falseness of his position, squirming under her caresses, and cursing himself heartily for yielding to the absurd impulse that had placed him in so ridiculous a predicament, Sanderson opened his month a dozen times to make his confession, but each time closed it again, unsuccessful.
At last, nerved to the ordeal by the knowledge that each succeeding moment was making his position more difficult, and his ultimate pardon less certain, he wrenched himself free and stood up, his face crimson.
"Look here, ma'am——"
"Mary!" she corrected, shaking a finger at him.
"Mary," he repeated tonelessly, "now look here," he went on hoarsely. "I want to tell you that I ain't the man you take me to be. I'm——"
"Yes, you are," she insisted, smiling and placing her hands on his shoulders. "You are a real man. I'll wager Dale thinks so; and Peggy Nyland, and Ben. Now, wait!" she added as he tried to speak. "I want to tell you something. Do you know what would have happened if you had not got here today?
"I'll tell you," she went on again, giving him no opportunity to inject a word. "Dale would have taken the Double A away from me! He told me so! He was over here yesterday, gloating over me. Do you know what he claims? That I am not a Bransford; that I am merely an adopted daughter—not even a legally adopted one; that father just took me, when I was a year old, without going through any legal formalities.
"Dale claims to have proof of that. He won't tell me where he got it. He has some sort of trumped-up evidence, I suppose, or he would not have talked so confidently. And he is all-powerful in the basin. He is friendly with all the big politicians in the territory, and is ruthless and merciless. I feel that he would have succeeded, if you had not come.
"I know what he wants; he wants the Double A on account of the water. He is prepared to go any length to get it—to commit murder, if necessary. He could take it away from me, for I wouldn't know how to fight him. But he can't take it away from you, Will. And he can't say you have no claim to the Double A, for father willed it to you, and the will has been recorded in the Probate Court in Las Vegas!
"O Will; I am so glad you came," she went on, stroking and patting his arms. "When I spoke to you the first time, out there by the stable, I was certain of you, though I dreaded to have you speak for fear you would say otherwise. And if it hadn't been you, I believe I should have died."
"An' if you'd find out, now, that I ain't Will Bransford," said Sanderson slowly, "what then?"
"That can't be," she said, looking him straight in the eyes, and holding his gaze for a long time, while she searched his face for signs of that playful deceit that she expected to see reflected there.
She saw it, evidently, or what was certainly an excellent counterfeit of it—though Sanderson was in no jocular mood, for at that moment he felt himself being drawn further and further into the meshes of the trap he had laid for himself—and she smiled trustfully at him, drawing a deep sigh of satisfaction and laying her head against his shoulder.
"That can't be," she repeated. "No man could deceive a woman like that!"
Sanderson groaned, mentally. He couldn't confess now and at the same time entertain any hope that she would forgive him.
Nor could he—knowing what he knew now of Dale's plans—brutally tell her the truth and leave her to fight Dale single-handed,
And there was still another consideration to deter him from making a confession. By impersonating her brother he had raised her hopes high. How could he tell her that her brother had been killed, that he had buried him in a desolate section of a far-off desert after taking his papers and his money?
He felt, from her manner when he had tentatively asked her to consider the possibility of his not being her brother, that the truth would kill her, as she had said.
Worse, were he now to inform her of what had happened in the desert, she might not believe him; she might indeed—considering that he already had dealt doubly with her—accuse him of being her brother's murderer!
Again Sanderson groaned in spirit. To confess to her would be to destroy her; to withhold the confession and to continue to impersonate her brother was to act the role of a cad.
Sanderson hesitated between a choice of the two evils, and was lost. For she gave him no time for serious and continued thought. Taking him by an arm she led him into a room off the sitting-room, shoving him through the door laughingly.
"That is to be your room," she said. "I fixed it up for you more than a month ago. You go in there and get some sleep. Sleep until dusk. By that time I'll have supper ready. And then, after supper, there are so many things that I want to say to you. So get a good sleep!"
She closed the door and went out, and Sanderson sank into a chair. Later, he locked the door, pulled the chair over near a window—from which he got a good view of the frowning butte at the edge of the level—and stared out, filled with a sensation of complete disgust.
"Hell," he said, after a time, "I'm sure a triple-plated boxhead, an' no mistake!"
Sanderson did not sleep. He sat at the window all afternoon, dismally trying to devise way of escape from the dilemma. He did not succeed. He had gone too far now to make a confession sound reasonably convincing; and he could not desert the girl to Dale. That was not to be thought of. And he was certain that if he admitted the deception, the girl would banish him as though he were a pestilence.
He was hopelessly entangled. And yet, continuing to ponder the situation, he saw that he need not completely yield to pessimism. For though circumstances—and his own lack of foresight—had placed him in a contemptible position—he need not act the blackguard. On the contrary, he could admirably assume the role of protector.
The position would not be without its difficulties, and the deception meant that he could never be to Mary Bransford what he wanted to be to her; but he could at least save the Double A for her. That done, and his confession made, he could go on his way, satisfied that he had at least beaten Dale.
His decision made, Sanderson got up, opened the door a trifle, and looked into the sitting-room. It was almost dusk, and, judging from the sounds that reached his ears from the direction of the kitchen, Mary intended to keep her promise regarding "supper."
Feeling guilty, though grimly determined to continue the deception to the end—whatever the end might be—Sanderson stole through the sitting-room, out through the door leading to the porch, and made his way to a shed lean-to back of the kitchen.
There he found a tin washbasin, some water, and a towel, and for ten minutes he worked with them. Then he discovered a comb, and a broken bit of mirror fixed to the wall of the lean-to, before which he combed his hair and studied his reflection. He noted the unusual flush on his cheeks, but grinned brazenly into the glass.
"I'm sure some flustered," he told his reflection.
Arrayed for a second inspection by Mary Bransford, Sanderson stood for a long time at the door of the lean-to, trying to screw up his courage to the point of confronting the girl.
He succeeded finally, and walked slowly to the outside kitchen door, where he stood, looking in at Mary.
The girl was working over the stove, from which, floating to the doorway where Sanderson stood, came various delicious odors.
Mary was arrayed in a neat-fitting house dress of some soft print material, with a huge apron over it. Her sleeves were rolled slightly above the elbows; her face was flushed, and when she turned and saw Sanderson her eyes grew very bright.
"Oh," she said; "you are up! I was just thinking of calling you!" She ran to him, threw her arms around him, and, in spite of his efforts to evade her, she kissed him first on one cheek and then on the other.
Noting his reluctance she stepped back and looked reprovingly at him.
"You seem so distant, Will. And I am so glad to see you!"
"I ain't used to bein' kissed, I expect."
"But—by your sister!"
He reddened. "I ain't seen you for a long time, you know. Give me time, an' mebbe I'll get used to it."
"I hope so," she smiled. "I should feel lost if I could not kiss my brother. You have washed, too!" she added, noting his glowing face and his freshly combed hair.
"Mary!" she corrected.
"Mary," grinned Sanderson.
Mary turned to the stove. "You go out and find a chair on the porch," she directed, over her shoulder. "I'll have supper ready in a jiffy. It's too hot for you in here."
Sanderson obeyed. From the deeply crimson hue of his face it was apparent that the heat of the kitchen had affected him. That, at least, must have been the reason Mary had ordered him away. His face felt hot.
He found a chair on the porch, and he sank into it, feeling like a criminal. There was a certain humor in the situation. Sanderson felt it, but could not appreciate it, and he sat, hunched forward, staring glumly into the dusk that had settled over the basin.
He had been sitting on the porch for some minutes when he became aware of a figure near him, and he turned slowly to see the little, anemic man standing not far away.
"Cooling off?" suggested the little man.
Sanderson straightened. "How in hell do you know I'm hot?" he demanded gruffly.
The little man grinned. "There's signs. Your face looks like you'd had it in an oven. Now, don't lose your temper; I didn't mean to offend you."
The little man's voice was placative; his manner gravely ingratiating. Yet Sanderson divined that the other was inwardly laughing at him. Why? Sanderson did not know. He was aware that he must seem awkward in the role of brother, and he suspected that the little man had noticed it; possibly the little man was one of those keen-witted and humorously inclined persons who find amusement in the incongruous.
There was certainly humor in the man's face, in the glint of his eyes, and in the curve of his lips. His face was seamed and wrinkled; his ears were big and prominent, the tips bending outward under the brim of a felt hat that was too large for him; his mouth was large, and Sanderson's impression of it was that it could not be closed far enough to conceal all the teeth, but that the lips were continually trying to stretch far enough to accomplish the feat.
Sanderson was certain it was that continual effort of the muscles of the lips that gave to his mouth its humorous expression.
The man was not over five feet and two or three inches tall, and crowning his slender body was a head that was entirely out of proportion to the rest of him. He was not repulsive-looking, however, and a glance at his eyes convinced Sanderson that anything Providence had taken from his body had been added, by way of compensation, to his intellect.
Sanderson found it hard to resent the man's seeming impertinence. He grinned reluctantly at him.
"Did I tell you you'd hurt my feelin's?" he inquired. "What oven do you think I had my head in?"
"I didn't say," grinned the little man. "There's places that are hotter than an oven. And if a man has never been a wolf with women, it might be expected that he'd feel sort of warm to be kissed and fussed over by a sister he's not seen for a good many years. He'd seem like a stranger to her—almost."
Sanderson's eyes glowed with a new interest in the little man.
"How did you know I wasn't a wolf with women?"
"Shucks," said the other; "you're bashful, and you don't run to vanity. Any fool could see that."
"I ain't been introduced to you—regular," said Sanderson, "but you seem to be a heap long on common sense, an' I'd be glad to know you. What did you say your name was?"
"What you doin' at the Double A? You ought be herd-ridin' scholars in a district schoolhouse."
"Missed my calling," grinned the other. "I got to know too much to teach school, but didn't know enough to let John Barleycorn alone. I'm a drifter, sort of. Been roaming around the north country. Struck the basin about three weeks ago. Miss Bransford was needing men—her father—yours, too, of course—having passed out rather sudden. I was wanting work mighty had, and Miss Bransford took me on because I was big enough to do the work of half a dozen men."
His face grew grave. Sanderson understood. Miss Bransford had hired Owen out of pity. Sanderson did not answer.
The little man's face worked strangely, and his eyes glowed.
"If you hadn't come when you did, I would have earned my keep, and Alva Dale would be where he wouldn't bother Miss Bransford any more," he said.
Sanderson straightened. "You'd have shot him, you mean?"
Owen did not speak, merely nodding his head.
Sanderson smiled. "Then I'm sort of sorry come when I did. But do you think shootin' Dale would have ended it?"
"No; Dale has friends." Owen leaned toward Sanderson, his face working with passion. "I hate Dale," he said hoarsely. "I hate him worse than I hate any snake that I ever saw. I hadn't been here two days when he sneered at me and called me a freak. I'll kill him—some day. Your coming has merely delayed the time. But before he dies I want to see him beaten at this game he's tryin' to work on Miss Bransford. And I'll kill any man that tries to give Miss Bransford the worst of it.
"You've got a fight on your hands. I know Dale and his gang, and they'll make things mighty interesting for you and Miss Bransford. But I'll help you, if you say the word. I'm not much for looks—as you can see—but I can sling a gun with any man I've ever met.
"I'd have tried to fight Dale alone—for Miss Bransford's sake—but I realize that things are against me. I haven't the size, and I haven't the nerve to take the initiative. Besides, I drink. I get riotously drunk. I can't help it. I can't depend on myself. But I can help you, and I will."
The man's earnestness was genuine, and though Sanderson had little confidence in the other's ability to take a large part in what was to come, he respected the spirit that had prompted the offer. So he reached out and took the man's hand.
"Any man that feels as strongly as you do can do a heap—at anything," he said. "We'll call it a deal. But you're under my orders."
"Yes," returned Owen, gripping the hand held out to him.
"Will!" came Mary's voice from the kitchen, "supper is ready!"
Owen laughed lowly, dropped Sanderson's hand, and slipped away into the growing darkness.
Sanderson got up and faced the kitchen door, hesitating, reluctant again to face the girl and to continue the deception. Necessity drove him to the door, however, and when he reached it, he saw Mary standing near the center of the kitchen, waiting for him.
"I don't believe you are hungry at all!" she declared, looking keenly at him. "And do you know, I think you blush more easily than any man I ever saw. But don't let that bother you," she added, laughing; "blushes become you. Will," she went on, tenderly pressing his arm as she led him through a door into the dining-room, "you are awfully good-looking!"
"You'll have me gettin' a swelled head if you go to talkin' like that," he said, without looking at her.
"Oh, no; you couldn't be vain if you tried. None of the Bransfords were ever vain—or conceited. But they all have had good appetites," she told him, shaking a finger at him. "And if you don't eat heartily I shall believe your long absence from home has taken some of the Bransford out of you!"
She pulled a chair out for aim, and took another at the table opposite him.
Sanderson ate; there was no way out of it, though he felt awkward and uncomfortable. He kept wondering what she would say to him if she knew the truth. It seemed to him that had the girl looked closely at him she might have seen the guilt in his eyes.
But apparently she was not thinking of doubting him—it was that knowledge which made Sanderson realize how contemptible was the part he was playing. She had accepted him on trust, without question, with the implicit and matter-of-fact faith of a child.
He listened in silence while she told him many things about the Bransfords—incidents that had occurred during his supposed absence, intimate little happenings that he had no right to hear. And he sat, silently eating, unable to interrupt, feeling more guilty and despicable all the time.
But he broke in after a time, gruffly:
"What's the trouble between Dale and the Nylands?"
Instantly she stiffened. "I forgot to tell you about that. Ben Nyland is a nester. He has a quarter-section of land on the northwestern edge of the basin. But he hasn't proved on it. The land adjoins Dale's. Dale wants it—he has always wanted it. And he means to have it. He also wants Peggy Nyland.
"Dale is a beast! You heard Peggy tell how he has hounded her. It is true; she has told me about it more than once. Dale hasn't told, of course; but it is my opinion that Dale put the Double A cattle into Ben's corral so that he could hang Ben. With Ben out of the way he could take the Nyland property—and Peggy, too."
"Why did he use Double A cattle?"
Mary paled. "Don't you see the hideous humor of that? He knows Peggy Nyland and I are friends. Dale is ruthless and subtle. Can't you understand how a man of that type would enjoy seeing me send my friend's brother to his death—and the brother innocent?"
"Why didn't you tell Dale the cattle did not belong to you?"
Mary smiled faintly. "I couldn't. To do so would have involved Ben Nyland in more trouble. Dale would have got one of his friends to claim them. And then I could have done nothing—having disclaimed the ownership of the stock. And I—I couldn't lie. And, besides, I kept hoping that something would happen. I had a premonition that something would happen. And something did happen—you came!"
"Yes," said Sanderson inanely, "I came."
He drew a large red handkerchief from a pocket and mopped some huge beads of sweat from his face and forehead. When the handkerchief came out a sheet of paper, folded and crumpled, fluttered toward the floor, describing an eccentric circle and landing within a foot of Mary's feet.
The girl saw that Sanderson had not noticed the loss of the paper, and she stooped and recovered it. She held it in a hand while Sanderson continued to wipe the perspiration from his face, and noting that he was busily engaged she smoothed the paper on the table in front of her and peered mischievously at it. And then, her curiosity conquering her, she read, for the writing on the paper was strangely familiar.
Sanderson having restored the handkerchief to its pocket, noticed Mary's start, and saw her look at him, her eyes wide and perplexed.
"Why, Will, where did you get this?" she inquired, sitting very erect.
"Mebbe if you'd tell me what it is I could help you out," he grinned.
"Why, it's a letter father wrote to a man in Tombstone, Arizona. See here! Father's name is signed to it! I saw father write it. Why, I rode over to Dry Bottom and mailed it! This man had written to father a long time before, asking for a job. I have his letter somewhere. It was the oddest letter! It was positively a gem of formality. I can remember every word of it, for I must have read it a dozen times. It ran:
"The undersigned has been at the location noted below for a term of years and desires to make a change. If you have an opening for a good all-around man, the undersigned would be willing to work for you. If you would want a recommendation, you can address Amos Burroughs, of the Pig-Pen Ranch, near Tombstone, where the undersigned is employed.
Mary leaned forward in her chair and looked at Sanderson with eager, questioning eyes. Sanderson stared vacantly back at her.
She held the letter up to him. "This is father's answer, telling the man to come on. How on earth did you get hold of it?"
Sanderson had slumped down in his chair. He saw discovery and disgrace in prospect. In the total stoppage of his thoughts no way of escape or evasion suggested itself. At the outset he was to be exposed as a miserable impostor.
He groaned, grinned vacuously at Mary, and again produced the handkerchief, wiping away drops of perspiration that were twice as big as those he had previously mopped off.
Mary continued to stare at him, repeating the question: "How did you get it?"
Sanderson's composure began to return; his grin grew wider and more intelligent, and at the sixth repetition of Mary's question he answered, boldly:
"I wasn't goin' to tell you about that. You see, ma'am——"
"You see, Mary, I was goin' to fool Brans—dad. I wrote, askin' him for the job, an' I was intendin' to come on, to surprise him. But before I told him who I was, I was goin' to feel him out, an' find out what he thought of me. Then I got your letter, tellin' me he was dead, an' so there wasn't any more use of tryin' to fool him."
"But that name, 'Sanderson?' That isn't your name, Will!"
"It was," he grinned. "When I left home I didn't want anybody to be runnin' into me an' recognizin' me, so I changed it to Sanderson. Deal Sanderson."
The girl's expression changed to delight; she sat erect and clapped her hands.
"Oh," she said, "I wish father was here to listen to this! He thought all along that you were going to turn out bad. If he only knew! Will, you don't mean to tell me that you are the Sanderson that we all know of here—that nearly everybody in the country has heard about; the man who is called 'Square Deal' Sanderson by all his friends—and even by his enemies—because of his determination to do right—and to make everyone else do right too!"
Again Sanderson resorted to the handkerchief.
"I don't reckon they've talked about me that strong," he said.
"But they have! Oh, I'm so happy, Will. Why, when Dale hears about it he'll be positively venomous—and scared. I don't think he will bother the Double A again—after he hears of it!"
But Sanderson merely smirked mirthlessly; he saw no reason for being joyful over the lie he had told. He was getting deeper and deeper into the mire of deceit and prevarication, and there seemed to be no escape.
And now, when he had committed himself, he realized that he might have evaded it all, this last lie at least, by telling Mary that he had picked the note up on the desert, or anywhere, for that matter, and she would have been forced to believe him.
He kept her away from him, fending off her caresses with a pretense of slight indisposition until suddenly panic-stricken over insistence, he told her he was going to bed, bolted into the room, locked the door behind him, and sat long in the darkness and the heat, filling the room with a profane appreciation of himself as a double-dyed fool who could not even lie intelligently.
KISSES—A MAN REFUSES THEM
There was a kerosene lamp in Sanderson's room, and when, after an hour of gloomy silence in the dark, he got up and lit the lamp, he felt decidedly better. He was undressing, preparing to get into bed, when he was assailed with a thought that brought the perspiration out on him again.
This time it was a cold sweat, and it came with the realization that discovery was again imminent, for if, as Mary had said, she had kept Sanderson's letter to her father, there were in existence two letters—his own and Will Bransford's—inevitably in different handwriting, both of which he had claimed to have written.
Sanderson groaned. The more he lied the deeper he became entangled. He pulled on his trousers, and stood shoeless, gazing desperately around the room.
He simply must destroy that letter, or Mary, comparing it with the letter her brother had written would discover the deception.
It was the first time in Sanderson's life that had ever attempted to deceive anybody, and he was in the grip of a cringing dread.
For the first time since he occupied the room he inspected it, noting its furnishings. His heart thumped wildly with hope while he looked.
It was a woman's room—Mary's, of course. For there were decorations here and there—a delicate piece of crochet work on a dresser; a sewing basket on a stand; a pincushion, a pair of shears; some gaily ornamented pictures on the walls, and—peering behind the dresser—he saw a pair of lady's riding-boots.
He strode to a closet door and threw it open, revealing, hanging innocently on their hooks, a miscellaneous array of skirts, blouses, and dresses.
Mary had surrendered her room to him. Feeling guilty again, and rather conscience-stricken, as though he were committing some sacrilegious action, he went to the dresser and began to search among the effects in the drawers.
They were filled with articles of wearing apparel, delicately fringed things that delight the feminine heart, and keepsakes of all descriptions. Sanderson handled them carefully, but his search was not the less thorough on that account.
And at last, in one of the upper drawers of the dresser, he came upon a packet of letters.
Again his conscience pricked him, but the stern urge of necessity drove him on until he discovered an envelope addressed to the elder Bransford, in his own handwriting, and close to it a letter from Will Bransford to Mary Bransford.
Sanderson looked long at the Bransford letter, considering the situation. He was tempted to destroy that, too, but he reflected, permitting a sentimental thought to deter him.
For Mary undoubtedly treasured that letter, and when the day came that he should tell her the truth, the letter would be the only link that would connect her with the memory of her brother.
Sanderson could not destroy it. He had already offended Mary Bransford more than he had a right to, and to destroy her brother's letter would be positively heinous.
Besides, unknown to him, there might be more letters about with Will Bransford's signature on them, and it might be well to preserve this particular letter in case he should be called upon to forge Will Bransford's signature.
So he retied the letters in the packet and restored the packet to its place, retaining his own letter to Bransford. Smiling grimly now, he again sought the chair near the window, lit a match, applied the blaze to the letter, and watched the paper burn until nothing remained of it but a crinkly ash. Then he smoked a cigarette and got into bed, feeling more secure.
Determined not to submit to any more of Mary's caresses, and feeling infinitely small and mean over the realization that he had already permitted her to carry her affection too far, he frowned at her when he went into the kitchen after washing the next morning, gruffly replying when she wished him a cheery, "Good morning," and grasping her arms when she attempted to kiss him.
He blushed, though, when her eyes reproached him.
"I ain't used to bein' mushed over," he told her. "We'll get along a heap better if you cut out the kissin'."
"Why, Will!" she said, her lips trembling.
She set them though, instantly, and went about her duties, leaving Sanderson to stand in the center of the room feeling like a brute.
They breakfasted in silence—almost. Sanderson saw her watching him—covert glances that held not a little wonder and disappointment. And then, when the meal was nearly finished, she looked at him with a taunting half-smile.
"Didn't you sleep good, Will?"
Sanderson looked fairly at her. That "Will" was already an irritation to him, for it continually reminded him of the despicable part he was playing. He knew what he was going to say would hurt her, but he was determined to erect between them a barrier that would prevent a repetition of any demonstrations of affection of the brother and sister variety.
He didn't want to let her continue to show affection for him when he knew that, if she knew who he really was, she would feel more tike murdering him.
"Look here, Mary," he said, coldly, "I've never cared a heap for the name Bransford. That's why I changed my name to Sanderson. I never liked to be called 'Will.' Hereafter I want you to call me Sanderson—Deal Sanderson. Then mebbe I'll feel more like myself."
She did not answer, but her lips straightened and she sat very rigid. It was plain to him that she was very much disappointed in him, and that in her mind was the contrast between her brother of today and her brother of yesterday.
She got up after a time, holding her head high, and left the room, saying as she went out:
"Very well; your wishes shall be respected. But it seems to me that the name Bransford is one be proud of!"
Sanderson grinned into his plate. He felt more decent now than he had felt since arriving at the Double A. If he could continue to prevent her from showing any affection for him—visible, at least—he would feel that the deception he was practising was less criminal. And when he went away, after settling the differences between Mary Bransford and Dale, he would have less to reproach himself with.
He did not see Mary again that morning. Leaving the dining-room, he went outside, finding Barney Owen in the bunkhouse in the company of several other Double A men.
Owen introduced him to the other men—who had ridden in to the ranchhouse the previous night, and were getting ready to follow the outfit wagon down the river into the basin to where the Double A herd was grazing.
Sanderson watched the men ride away, then he turned to Owen.
"I'm ridin' to Las Vegas, to get a look at the will, an' see what the records have got to say about the title to the Double A. Want to go?"
"Sure," the little man grinned.
Riding down the gentle slope of the basin, Alva Dale maintained a sullen silence. He rode far in advance of the two men who accompanied him, not listening to their voices, which occasionally reached him, not seeming to be aware of their presence.
Defeat had always brought bitterness to Dale; his eyes were glowing with a futile rage as he led his men homeward.
Dale's scheme to dispose of Ben Nyland had been carefully planned and deftly carried out. He had meant to hang Nyland, take possession of his property, and force Peggy to accept whatever conditions he cared to impose upon her.
The unlooked-for appearance of Mary Bransford's brother had disturbed his plans. As a matter of fact, the coming of Bill Bransford would make it necessary for Dale to make entirely new plans.
Dale was puzzled. During the elder Bransford's last days, and for a year or more preceding the day of Bransford's death, Dale had professed friendship for him. The pretense of friendship had resulted profitably for Dale, for it had enabled him to establish an intimacy with Bransford which had made it possible for Dale to learn much of Bransford's personal affairs.
For instance, Dale had discovered that there was in Las Vegas no record of Mary Bransford's birth, and though Bransford had assured him that Mary was his child, the knowledge had served to provide Dale with a weapon which he might have used to advantage—had not Bill Bransford returned in time to defeat him.
Dale had heard the story of the trouble between Bransford and his son, Will; it was the old tale of father and son not agreeing, and of the son leaving home, aggrieved.
Dale had made it his business to inquire often about the son, and when one day Bransford told him he had received a letter from his boy, Dale betrayed such interest that the elder Bransford had permitted him to read the letter.
That had been about a year before Mary had written the letter that Sanderson had found in one of Will Bransford's pockets. The letter told of the writer's longing to return home. The elder Bransford declared that his heart had not softened toward the boy and that he would not answer him. Leaving Dale, Bransford had dropped the letter, and Dale had picked it up.
Dale still had the letter, and because of his pretended friendship for the father he had been able to insinuate himself into Mary's good graces. He had advised Mary to write to her brother, and he had seen the letter from the younger Bransford in which the latter had told his sister that he would return.
After reading Will Bransford's letter, and learning from Mary that she was sending a thousand dollars to her brother, Dale wrote to a friend in Tucson. Dale's letter accompanied Mary's to the latter town, and the evil-visaged fellow who received it grinned widely in explaining the circumstance to two of his friends.
"We'll git him, sure as shootin'," he said. "A thousand dollars ain't a hell of a lot—but I've put men out of business for less!"
Dale knew the man to whom he had written, and he had received a reply, telling him that the job would be done. And that was why, when Sanderson had calmly announced that he was Will Bransford, Dale had been unwilling to believe his statement.
Dale did not believe, now, that the man who had interfered to save Nyland was Will Bransford. Dale rode slowly homeward, scowling, inwardly fuming with rage, but unable to form any decided plan of action.
It was several miles to the Bar D, Dale's ranch, and when he arrived there he was in an ugly mood. He curtly dismissed the two men who had accompanied him and went into the house. Opening the door of the room he used as an office, he saw a medium-sized man of fifty sitting in a big desk chair, smoking a cigar.
The man smiled at Dale's surprise, but did not offer to get up, merely extending his right hand, which Dale grasped and shook heartily.
"Dave Silverthorn, or I'm a ghost!" ejaculated Dale, grinning. "How in thunder did you get here?"
"Rode," smiled the other, showing a set of white, flashing teeth. "I saw you pass the window. You looked rather glum, and couldn't see my horse, I suppose. Something gone wrong?"