STEVE YEAGER BY WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Made in the United States of America
COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
I STEVE MAKES A MISTAKE 1 II "ENOUGH'S A-PLENTY" 10 III CHAD HARRISON 25 IV THE EXTRA 33 V YEAGER ASKS ADVICE 42 VI PLUCKING A PIGEON 56 VII STEVE TELLS TOO MUCH TRUTH 71 VIII THE HEAVY GETS HIS TIME 79 IX GABRIEL PASQUALE 86 X A NIGHT VISIT 96 XI CHAD DECIDES TO GET BUSY 112 XII INTO THE DESERT 121 XIII THE NIGHT TRAIL 131 XIV THE CAVE MEN 140 XV STEVE WINS A HAM SANDWICH 153 XVI THE HEAVY PAYS A DEBT 166 XVII PEDRO CABENZA 175 XVIII HARRISON OVERPLAYS HIS HAND 181 XIX THE TEXAN 194 XX NEAR THE END OF HIS TRAIL 207 XXI A STAGE PREPARED FOR TRAGEDY 216 XXII A CONSPIRACY 223 XXIII TRAPPED 229 XXIV THE PRISONER 247 XXV THE TEXAN TAKES A LONG JOURNEY 257 XXVI AT SUNSET 266 XXVII CULVERA RECONSIDERS 274 XXVIII AS LONG AS LIFE 284
STEVE MAKES A MISTAKE
Steve Yeager held his bronco to a Spanish trot. Somewhere in front of him, among the brown hill swells that rose and fell like waves of the sea, lay Los Robles and breakfast. One solitary silver dollar, too lonesome even to jingle, lay in his flatulent trouser pocket. After he and Four Bits had eaten, two quarters would take the place of the big cartwheel. Then would come dinner, a second transfer of capital, and his pocket would be empty as a cow's stomach after a long drive.
Being dead broke, according to the viewpoint of S. Yeager, is right and fitting after a jaunt to town when one has a good job back in the hills. But it happened he had no more job than a rabbit. Wherefore, to keep up his spirits he chanted the endless metrical version of the adventures of Sam Bass, who
"... started out to Texas a cowboy for to be, And a kinder-hearted fellow you scarcely ever'd see."
Steve had not quit his job. It had quit him. A few years earlier the Lone Star Cattle Company had reigned supreme in Dry Sandy Valley and the territory tributary thereto. Its riders had been kings of the range. That was before the tide of settlement had spilled into the valley, before nesters had driven in their prairie schooners, homesteaded the water-holes, and strung barb-wire fences across the range. Line-riders and dry farmers and irrigators had pushed the cowpuncher to one side. Sheep had come bleating across the desert to wage war upon the cattle. Finally Uncle Sam had sliced off most of the acreage still left and called it a forest reserve.
Wherefore the Lone Star outfit had thrown up its hands, sold its holdings, and moved to Los Angeles to live. Wherefore also Steve Yeager, who did not know Darwin from a carburetor, had by process of evolution been squeezed out of the occupation he had followed all of his twenty-three years since he could hang on to a saddle-horn. He had mournfully foreseen the end when the schoolhouse was built on Pine Knob and little folks went down the road with their arms twined around the waist of teacher. After grizzled Tim Sawyer made bowlegged tracks straight for that schoolmarm and matrimony, his friends realized that the joyous whoop of the puncher would not much longer be heard in the land. The range-rider must dwindle to a farmer or get off the earth. Steve was getting off the earth.
Since Steve was of the sunburnt State, still a boy, and by temperament incurably optimistic, he sang cheerfully. He wanted to forget that he had eaten neither supper nor breakfast. So he carried Mr. Bass through many adventures till that genial bandit
"... sold out at Custer City and there got on a spree, And a tougher lot of cowboys you never'd hope to see."
Four Bits had topped a rise and followed the road down in its winding descent. After the nomadic fashion of Arizona the trail circled around a tongue of a foothill which here jutted out. Voices from just beyond the bend startled Yeager. One of them was raised impatiently.
"Won't do, Harrison. Be rougher. Throw her on her knees and tie her hands."
The itinerant road brought Steve in another moment within view. He saw a girl picking poppies. Two men rode up and swung from their saddles. They talked with her threateningly. She shrank back in fear. One of them seized her wrists and threw her down.
"Lively, now. Into the pit with her. Get the stuff across," urged a short fat man with a cigar in his mouth who was standing ten or fifteen yards back from the scene of action.
Steve had put his horse at a gallop the moment the girl had been seized. It struck him there was something queer about the affair,—something not quite natural to which he could not put a name. But he did not stop to reason out the situation. Dragging his pony to a slithering halt, he leaped to the ground.
"Get busy, Jackson. You ain't in a restaurant waiting for a meal," the little fat man reminded one of his tools irritably. Then, as he caught sight of Steve, "What the hell!"
Yeager's left shot forward, all the weight and muscle of one hundred and seventy pounds of live cowpuncher behind it. Villain Number One went to the ground as if a battering-ram had hit him between the eyes.
"Lay hands on a lady, will you?"
Steve turned to Villain Number Two, who backed away rapidly in alarm.
"What's eatin' you? We ain't hurtin' her any, you mutt."
The girl, still crouched on the ground, turned with a nervous little laugh to the man who had been directing operations:—
"What d'you know about that, Billie? The rube swallowed it all. You gotta raise my salary."
The cowpuncher felt in the pit of his stomach the same sensation he had known when an elevator in Denver had dropped beneath his feet too suddenly. The young woman was rouged and painted to the ears. Never in its palmiest days had the 'Dobe Dollar's mirrors reflected a costume more gaudy than the one she was wearing. The men too were painted and dolled up extravagantly in vaqueros' costumes that were the limit of absurdity. Had they all escaped from a madhouse? Or was he, Steve Yeager, in a pipe-dream?
From a near grove of cottonwoods half a dozen men in chaps came running. Assured of their proximity, the fat little fellow pawed the air with rage.
"Ever see such rotten luck? Spoiled the whole scene. Say, you Rip Van Winkle, think we came out here for the ozone?"
One of the men joined the young woman, who was assisting the villain Yeager had knocked out. The others crowded around him in excitement, all expostulating at once. They were dressed wonderfully and amazingly as cowpunchers, but they were painted frauds in spite of the careful ostentation of their costumes. Steve's shiny leathers and dusty hat missed the picturesque, but he looked indigenous and they did not. He was at his restful ease, this slender, brown man, negligent, careless, eyes twinkling but alert. The brand of the West was stamped indelibly on him.
"I ce'tainly must 'a' spilled the beans. Looks like I done barked up the wrong tree," he drawled amiably.
A man who had been standing on a box behind some kind of a masked battery jumped down and joined the group.
"Gee! I've got a bully picture of our anxious friend laying out Harrison. Nothing phony about that, Threewit. Won't go in this reel, but she'll make a humdinger in some other. Say, didn't Harrison hit the dust fine! Funny you lads can't ever pull off a fall like that."
An annoyed voice, both raucous and sneering, interrupted his enthusiasm. "Just stick around, Mr. Camera Man, and you'll get a chance to do another bit of real life that ain't faked. I'm goin' to hammer the head off Buttinski presently."
The camera man, an alert, boyish fellow as thin as a lath, turned and grinned. Harrison was sitting up a little unsteadily. Burning black eyes, set in sockets of extraordinary depths, blazed from a face sinister enough to justify Steve's impression of him as a villain. The shoulders of the man were very broad and set with the gorilla hunch; he was deep-chested and lean-loined. His eyes shifted with a quick, furtive menace. His companions might be imitation cowpunchers, but if Yeager was any judge this was no imitation bad man.
"Going to eat him alive, are you?" the camera man wanted to know pleasantly.
Steve pushed through to Harrison. A whimsical little smile of apology crinkled the boyish face.
"It's on me, compadre. I'm a rube, and anything else you like. And I sure am sorry for going off half-cocked."
A wintry frost was in the jet bead eyes that looked up at the puncher. The sitting man did not recognize the extended hand.
"You'll be a heap sorrier before I'm through with you," he growled. "I'm goin' to beat your head off and learn you to mind your own business."
"Interesting if true," retorted Steve lightly. "And maybeso you're right. A man can't always most likely tell. Take a watermelon now. You can't tell how good it is till you thump it. Same way with a man, I've heard say."
He turned to the young woman, whose bright brown eyes were lingering upon him curiously. This was no novel experience to him. He wore his splendid youth so jauntily and yet so casually that the gaze of a girl was likely to be drawn in his direction a second and a third time. In spite of his youthfulness there was in his face a certain sun-and-wind-bitten maturity, a steadiness of the quiet eye that promised efficiency. The film actress sensed the same competent strength in the brown, untorn hand that assisted her to rise to her feet. His friendly smile showed the flash of white, regular teeth.
"The rube apologizes, ma'am. He's just in from Cactus Center and never did see one of those moving-picture outfits before. Thirty-eleven things were in sight as I happened round that bend, but the only one I glimmed was you being mistreated. Corking chance for a grandstand play. So I sailed in pronto. 'Course I should've known better, but I didn't."
Maisie Winters was the name of the young woman. She played the leads in one of the Southwest companies of the Lunar Film Manufacturers. Her charming face was known and liked on the screens of several continents. Now it broke into lines of mischievous amusement.
"I don't mind if Mr. Harrison doesn't." She flashed a gay, inquiring look toward that discomfited villain, who was leaning for support on his accomplice Jackson and glaring at Yeager. Impudently she tilted her chin back toward the puncher. "Are you always so—so impetuous? If so, there's a fortune waiting for you in the moving-picture field."
Yeager did not object to having so attractive a young woman as this one poke fun at him. He grinned joyfully.
"Me! I'm open to an engagement, ma'am."
The short fat man whom Maisie Winters had called Billie looked sharply at the cowpuncher out of shrewd gray eyes.
"Where you been working?" he demanded abruptly.
"With the Lone Star outfit."
"Company gone out of business—country getting too popular, what with homesteaders, forest rangers, and Mary's little lamb," explained Steve.
"Hm! Can you ride a bucker?"
"I can pull leather and kinder stick on."
"I'll try you out for a week at two-fifty a day if you like."
"You've hired Steve Yeager," promptly announced the owner of that name.
While driving his car back to Los Robles, Billie Threewit, producing director at the border studio of the Lunar Film Manufacturers, indulged in caustic comment on his own idiocy.
"Now, what in hell did I take on this Yeager rube for? He had just finished crabbing one scene. Wasn't that enough without me paying him good money to spoil more? Harrison's sore on him too. There's going to be trouble there. He ain't going to stand for that roughhouse stuff a little bit."
Frank Farrar, the camera man, took a more cheerful view of the situation.
"He's a find, if you ask me—the real thing in cowpunchers. And I don't know as this outfit has to be run to please Harrison. The big bully has got us all stepping sideways and tiptoeing so as not to offend him. I'm about fed up with the brute. Wish this rube would mop the earth up with him when Harrison gets gay."
"No chance. Harrison's a bully all right, but he's one grand little fighter too. You saw him clean up that bunch of greasers. He's there with both feet on the Marquis of Q. business, and don't you forget it. I put up with more from him than I ever did from a dozen other actors because he's so mean when he's sulky."
"Here too," agreed Farrar. "It's take your hat off when you speak to Mr. Chad Harrison. I can't yell at him that he's getting out of the picture; I've got to pull the Alphonse line of talk.—'Mr. Harrison, if you'd be so kind as to get that left hind hoof of yours six inches more to the right.' He makes me good and weary."
"He gets his stuff across good. Wasn't for that I wouldn't stand for him a minute. But we're down here, son, to get this three-reel Mexican war dope. As long as Harrison delivers the goods we'll have to put up with him."
"Well, I'm going to give this Yeager lad a tip what he's up against. Then if he wants to he can light out before Harrison gets to him."
Farrar was as good as his word. As soon as he reached the hotel he dropped around to the room where the new extra was staying. His knock brought no answer, but as the door was ajar the camera man stepped across the threshold.
Steve lay on the bed asleep, his lithe, compact figure stretched at negligent ease. The flannel shirt was open at the throat, the strong muscles of which sloped beautifully into the splendid shoulders. There was strength in the clean-cut jaw of the brown face. It was an easy guess that he had wandered by paths crooked as well as straight, that he had taken the loose pleasures of his kind joyously. But when he had followed forbidden trails it had been from the sheer youthful exuberance of life in him and not from weakness. Farrar judged that the heart of the young vagabond was sound, that the desert winds and suns had kept his head washed clean of shameful thoughts.
The cowpuncher opened his eyes. He looked at his visitor without speaking.
"Didn't expect to find you asleep," apologized the camera man.
Yeager got up and stretched his supple body in a yawn. "That's all right. Just making up the sleep I lost last night on the road. No matter a-tall."
He was in blue overalls, the worn shiny chaps tossed across the back of a chair. On the table lay the dusty, pinched-in hat, through the disreputable crown of which Farrar had lately seen a lock of his brindle hair rising like an aigrette.
"Glad to have you join us. We need riders like you. Say, it was worth five dollars to me to see the way you laid out Harrison."
The cowpuncher's boyish face clouded.
"I'm right sorry about that. It ce'tainly was a fool play. I don't blame Harrison for getting sore."
"He's sore all right. That's what I came to see you about. He's a rowdy, Harrison is. And he'll make you trouble."
"Most generally I don't pack a gun," Yeager observed casually.
"It won't be a gun play; not to start with, anyhow. He used to be a prizefighter. He'll beat you up."
"Well, it don't hurt a man's system to absorb a licking once in a blue moon."
The cowpuncher said it smilingly, with a manner of negligent competence that came from an experience of many dangers faced, of many perilous ways safely trodden.
Farrar had not yet quite discharged his mind. "There's nothing to prevent you from slipping round to the stable and pulling your freight quietly."
"Except that I don't want to," added the new extra. "No, sir. I've got a job and I'm staying with it. I'll sit here like a horned toad till the boss gives me my time."
The camera man beamed. To meet so debonair and care-free a specimen of humanity warmed the cockles of his heart.
"I'll bet you're some scrapper yourself," he suggested.
"Oh, no. He'll lick me, I reckon. Say, what do they hold you up for at this hacienda?"
The lank camera man supplied information, adding that he knew of a good cheap boarding-place where one or two of the company put up.
"If you say so, I'll take you right round there."
Yeager reached promptly for his hat. "You talk like a dollar's worth of nickels rattling out of a slot machine—right straight to the point."
They walked together down the white, dusty street, crossed the outskirts of the old Mexican adobe town, and came to a suburb of bungalows. In front of one of these Farrar stopped. He unlatched the gate.
"Here we are."
There was an old-fashioned garden of roses and mignonettes and hollyhocks, with crimson ramblers rioting over the wire trellis in front of the broad porch. A girl with soft, thick, blue-black hair was bending over a rosebush. She was snipping dead shoots with a pair of scissors. At the sound of their feet crunching the gravel of the walk, her slender figure straightened and she turned to them. The ripe lips parted above pearly teeth in a smile of welcome to the camera man.
"I've come begging again, Miss Ruth," explained Farrar. "This is Mr. Yeager, a new member of our company. He wants to find a good boarding-place, so of course I thought of your mother. Don't tell me that you can't take him."
A little frown of doubt furrowed her forehead. "I don't know, Mr. Farrar. Our tables are about full. I'll ask mother."
The eyes of the girl rested for an instant on the brown-faced youth whose application the camera man was backing. He had taken off his hat, and the sun-pour was on his tawny hair, on the lean, bronzed face and broad, muscular shoulders. In his torn, discolored hat, his stained and travel-worn clothes, he looked a very prince of tramps. But in his quiet, steady gaze was the dynamic spark of self-respect that forebade her to judge him by his garb.
A faint flush burned in the dusky cheeks to which the long lashes drooped because of a touch of embarrassment. He had seemed to read her hesitation with an inner amusement that found expression in his gray-blue eyes.
"Tell her I'll be much obliged if she'll take me," Yeager said in his gentle drawl.
Considering his request, she stripped the gauntlet without purpose from one of her little brown hands. A solitaire sparkled on the third finger. Again she murmured, "I'll ask mother"; then turned and flashed up the steps, her slender limbs carrying with fluent grace the pliant young body.
Presently appeared on the porch a plump, matronly woman of a wholesome cleanness without and within. Judging by fugitive dabs of flour which decorated her temple and her forehead, she had been making bread or pies at the time she had been called by her daughter. Much of her life she had lived in the Southwest, and one glance at Yeager was enough to satisfy her. Through the dust and tarnished clothes of him youth shone resplendent. The sun was still in his brindle hair, in his gay eyes. She had a boy of her own, and the heart of her warmed to him.
In five sentences they had come to an arrangement. The barn behind the house had been remodeled so that it contained several bedrooms. Into one of these Yeager was to move his scant effects at once.
He and Farrar walked back to the hotel together. Harrison was waiting for them on the porch. As soon as he caught sight of the cowpuncher he strode forward. The straight line of his set mouth looked like a gash in a melon.
"Will you have it here or back of the garage?" he demanded, getting straight to business.
"Any place that suits you," agreed Steve affably. "Won't the bulls pinch us if we do a roughhouse here?"
Harrison turned with triumphant malice to Farrar.
"Get your camera. You say you don't like phony stuff. Good enough. I'll pull off the real goods for you in licking a rube. There's plenty of room back of the garage."
The camera man protested. "See here, Harrison. Yeager ain't looking for trouble. He told you he was sorry. It was an accident. What's the use of bearing a grudge?"
The heavy glared at him. "You in this, Mr. Farrar? You're liable to have a heluvatime if you butt into my business without an invite. Shack—and git that camera."
Yeager nodded to his new friend. "Go ahead and get it. We'll be waiting back of the garage."
Farrar hesitated, the professional instinct in him awake and active.
"If you're dead keen on a mix-up, Harrison, why not come over to the studio where I can get the best light? We'll make an indoor set of it."
"Go you," promptly agreed Harrison. His vanity craved a picture of him thrashing the extra, a good one that the public could see and that he could afterwards gloat over himself.
Yeager laughed in his slow way. "I'm to be massa-creed to make a Roman holiday, am I? All right. Might as well begin earning that two-fifty per I've been promised."
The news spread, as if on the wings of the wind. Before Farrar had a stage arranged to suit him and his camera ready, a dozen members of the company drifted in with a casual manner of having arrived accidentally. Fleming Lennox, leading man, appeared with Cliff Manderson, chief comedian for the Lunar border company. Baldy Cummings, the property man, strolled leisurely in to look over some costumes. But Steve observed that he was panting rapidly.
As he sat on a soap box waiting for Farrar to finish his preparations, Yeager became aware that Lennox was watching him closely. He did not know that the leading man would cheerfully have sacrificed a week's salary to see Harrison get the trimming he needed. The handsome young film actor was an athlete, a trained boxer, but the ex-prizefighter had given him the thrashing of his life two months before. He simply had lacked the physical stamina to weather the blows that came from those long, gorilla-like arms with the weight of the heavy, rounded shoulders back of them. The fight had not lasted five minutes.
"Shapes well," murmured Manderson, nodding toward the new extra.
The leading man agreed without much hope. He conceded the boyish cowpuncher a beautiful trim figure, with breadth of shoulder, grace of poise, and long, flowing muscles that rippled under the healthy skin like those of a panther in motion. But these would serve him little unless he was an experienced boxer. Harrison had tremendous strength and power; moreover, he knew the game from years of battle in the ring.
"He'll lose—won't be able to stand the gaff," Lennox replied gloomily, his eyes fixed on Yeager as the young fellow rose lightly and moved forward to meet his opponent.
The extra was as tall as Harrison, but he looked like a boy beside him, so large and massive did the heavy bulk. The contrast between them was so great that Yeager was scarcely conceded a fighting chance. Steve himself knew quite well that he was in for a licking at the hands of this wall-eyed Hercules with the leathery brown face.
He got it, efficiently and scientifically, but not before Harrison had found out he was in a fight. The big man disdained any defense except that which went naturally with his crouch. He had a tremendously long reach and knew how to get the weight of his shoulders behind his punishing blows. Usually Harrison did all the fighting. The other man was at the receiving end.
It was a little different this time. Yeager met his first rush with a straight left that got home and jarred the prizefighter to his heels. To see the look on the face of the heavy, compound of blank astonishment and chagrin, was worth the price of admission.
Lennox sang out encouragement. "Good boy. Go to him."
Harrison put his head down and rushed. His arms worked like flails. They beat upon Steve's body and face as a hammer does upon an anvil. Only by his catlike agility and the toughness born of many clean years in the saddle did the cowpuncher weather for the time the hurricane that lashed at him. He dodged and ducked and parried by instinct, smothering what blows he could, evading those he might, absorbing the ones he must. Out of that first melee he came reeling and dizzy, quartering round and round before the panting professional.
The bully enraged was not a sight pleasant to see. He was too near akin to the primeval brute. He glared savagely at his victim, who grinned back at him with an indomitable jauntiness.
"This is the life," the cowpuncher assured his foe cheerfully after dodging a blow that was like the kick of a mule.
Harrison rocked him with a short stiff uppercut. "Glad you like it," he jeered.
Yeager crossed with his right, catching him flush on the cheek. "Here's your receipt for the same," he beamed.
Like a wild bull the prizefighter was at him again. He beat down the cowpuncher's defense and mauled him savagely with all the punishing skill of his craft. Steve was a man of his hands. He had held his own in many a rough-and-tumble bout. But he had no science except that which nature had given him. As long as a man could, he stood up to Harrison's trained skill. When at last he was battered to the ground it was because the strength had all oozed out of him.
Harrison stood over him, swaggering. "Had enough?"
Where he had been flung, against one of the studio walls, Steve sat dizzily, his head reeling. He saw things through a mist in a queer jerky way. But still a smile beamed on his disfigured face.
"Surest thing you know."
"Don't want some more of the same?" jeered the victor.
"Didn't hear me ask for more, did you? No, an' you won't either. Me, I love a scrap, but I don't yearn for no encore after I've been clawed by a panther and chewed up by a threshing-machine and kicked by an able-bodied mule into the middle o' next week. Enough's a-plenty, as old Jim Butts said when his second wife died."
The prizefighter looked vindictively down at him. He was not satisfied, though he had given the range-rider such a whaling as few men could stand up and take. For the conviction was sifting home to him that he had not beaten the man at all. His pile-driver blows had hammered down his body, but the spirit of him shone dauntless out of the gay, unconquerable eyes.
With a sullen oath Harrison turned away. His sulky glance fell upon Lennox, who was clapping his hands softly.
"You'd be one grand little fighter, Yeager, if you only knew how," the leading man said with enthusiasm.
"Mebbe you'd like to teach him, Mr. Lennox," sneered Harrison.
The star flushed. "Maybe I would, Mr. Harrison."
"Or perhaps you'd rather show him how it's done."
Lennox looked, straight at him. "Nothing doing. And I serve notice right here that I'll have no more trouble with you. If it's got to come to that either you or I will quit the company."
The bully's eyes narrowed. "Which one of us?"
"It'll be up to Threewit to pass on that."
Harrison put on his coat and slouched sulkily out of the building. He knew quite well that if it came to a choice between him and Lennox the director would sacrifice him without a moment's consideration.
Farrar, who had been grinding out pictures since the beginning of hostilities, came forward to greet Yeager with a little whoop of joy.
"Say, you sure go some, Cactus Center. I never did see a fellow eat up such a licking and come up smiling. You're certainly one Mellin's Food baby. I'm for you—strong."
One of Steve's eyes was closing rapidly, but the other had not lost its twinkle.
"Does a fellow's system good to assimilate a tanning oncet in a while—sort o' corrects any mistaken notions he's liable to collect. Gentlemen, hush! Ain't Harrison the boss eat-em-alive white hope that ever turkey-trotted down the pike?"
The melancholy Manderson smiled. "You make a hit with me, Arizona. If I were in your place I'd be waiting for the undertaker. You look like you'd out come of a railroad wreck, two fires, and a cattle stampede over your carcass. Here, boys, hustle along first aid to our friend the punching-bag."
They got him water and towels and a sponge. Steve, protesting humorously, submitted to their ministrations. He was grateful for the friendliness that prompted their kindness. The atmosphere had subtly changed. During the afternoon he had sensed a little aloofness, an intention on the part of the company members to stand off until they knew him better. Now the ice was melted. They had taken him into the family. He had passed with honors his preliminary examination.
As soon as Steve stepped into the dining-room he knew that the story of his fight with Harrison had preceded him. His battered face became an immediate focus of curious veiled glances. These exhibited an animated interest rather than surprise.
Mrs. Seymour introduced him in turn to each of the other boarders, and the furtive looks stared for a moment their frank questions at him. As he drew in his chair beside a slender, tanned young woman, he knew with some amusement that his arrival had interrupted a conversation of which he had been the theme.
The film actress seated beside Yeager must have been in her very early twenties, but her pretty face, finely modeled, had the provocative effrontery that is the note of twentieth-century young womanhood. Its audacity, which was the quintessence of worldliness, held an alert been-through-it-all expression.
"I hope you like Los Robles, Mr. Yeager. Some of us don't, you know," she suggested.
"Like it fine, Miss Ellington," he answered with enthusiasm, accepting from Ruth Seymour a platter of veal croquettes.
Daisy Ellington slanted mischievous eyes toward him. "Not much doing here. It's a dead little hole. You'll be bored to death—if you haven't been already."
"Me! I've found it right lively," retorted Steve, his eyes twinkling. "Had all the excitement I could stand for one day. You see I come from way back in the cow country, ma'am."
"And I came from New York," she sighed. "When it comes to little old Broadway I'm there with bells on. What d'you mean, cow country? Ain't this far enough off the map? Say, were you ever in New York?"
"Oncet. With a load of steers my boss was shipping to England. Lemme see. It was three years ago come next October."
"Three years ago. Why, that was when I was in the pony ballet with 'Adam, Eve, and the Apple.' Did you see the show?"
"Bet I did."
Her eyes sparkled. "I was in the first row, third from the left in the 'Good-Night' chorus. Some kick to that song, wasn't there?"
"I should say yes. We're old friends, then, aren't we?" exclaimed Yeager promptly. He buried her little hand in his big brown paw, a friendly smile beaming through the disfigurements of his bruised face.
"He didn't do a thing to you, did he?" she commented, looking him over frankly.
"Not a thing—except run me through a sausage-grinder, drop me out of one of these aeroplanes, hammer my haid with a pile-driver, and jounce me up and down on a big pile of sharp rocks. Outside of trifles like that I had it all my own way."
"I don't see any alfalfa in your hair," she laughed. Then, lowering her voice discreetly, she added: "Harrison's a brute. I'll tell you about him some time when Ruth isn't round."
"Ruth!" Steve glanced at the young girl who moved about the room with such rhythmic grace helping the Chinese waiter serve her mother's guests. "What has she got to do with Harrison?"
"Engaged to him—that's all. See that sparkler on her finger? Wouldn't it give you a jolt that a nice little girl like her would take up with a stiff like Harrison?"
"What's her mother thinking about?" asked the cowpuncher under cover of the conversation that was humming briskly all around the tables.
Daisy lifted her shoulders in a careless little shrug. "Oh, her mother! What's she got to do with it? Harrison has hypnotized the kid, I guess. He throws a big chest, and at that he ain't bad-looking. He's one man too, if he is a rotten bad lot."
The young woman breezed on to another subject in the light, inconsequent fashion she had, and presently deserted Yeager to meet the badinage of an extra sitting at an adjoining table.
After dinner Steve went to his new quarters to get a cigar he had left on the table. It was one Farrar had given him. He was cherishing it because his financial assets had become reduced to twenty cents and he did not happen to know when pay-day was.
Yeager climbed the barn stairs humming a range song:—
"Black Jack Davy came a-riding along, Singing a song so gayly, He laughed and sang till the merry woods rang And he charmed the heart of a lady, And he charmed—"
Abruptly he pulled up in his stride and in his song. Ruth Seymour was in the room putting new sheets and pillow-cases on the bed.
"I haven't had time before. I didn't think you would be through dinner so soon," she explained in a voice soft and low.
"That's all right. I only dropped up to get a cigar I left on the table. Don't let me disturb you."
Her troubled eyes rested on the strong, lean face that went so well with the strong, lean body. One eye was swollen and almost shut. Red bruises glistened on the forehead and the cheeks. A bit of plaster stretched diagonally above the right cheekbone where the prizefighter's knuckles had cut a deep gash. Little ridges covered his countenance as if it had been a contour map of a mountainous country. But through all the havoc that had been wrought flashed his white teeth in a cheerful smile.
The girl's lip trembled. "I'm sorry you—were hurt."
He flashed a quick look at her. "Sho! Forget it, Miss Seymour. I wasn't hurt any—none to speak of. It don't do a big husky like me any harm to be handed a licking."
"You—hit him first, didn't you?"
"Yes, ma'am,—knocked him out cold before he knew where he was at. He was entitled to a come-back. I'm noways hos-tile to him because he's a better man than I am."
She stood with the pillow in her hands, shy as a fawn, but with a certain resolution, too, the trouble of her soul still reflected on the sweet face.
"Why do men—do such things?" she asked with a catch of her breath.
He scratched his curly head in apologetic perplexity. "Search me. I reckon the cave man is lurking around in most of us. We hadn't ought to. That's a fact."
"It was all a mistake, Miss Ellington says. You thought he was hurting Miss Winters. Why didn't you tell him you were sorry? Then it would have been all right."
The cowpuncher did not bat an eye at this innocent suggestion.
"That's right. Why didn't I think of that? Then of course he would have laid off o' me."
"He—Mr. Harrison—is quick-tempered. I suppose all brave men are. But he's generous, too. If you had explained—"
"I reckon you're right. He sure is generous, even in the whalings he gives. But don't worry about me. I'm all right, and much obliged for your kindness in asking."
Steve found his cigar and retired. He carried with him in memory a picture of a troubled young creature with soft, tender eyes gleaming starlike from beneath waves of dark hair.
Yeager met Harrison swaggering up the gravel walk toward the house. A malevolent gleam lit in the cold black eyes of the bully.
"How you feeling, young fella?"
"A hundred and eighty years old," answered the cowpuncher promptly with a grin. "Every time I open my mouth my face cracks. You ce'tainly did give me a proper trimming. I don't know sic-'em about this scientific fight game."
Harrison scowled. "There's more at the same address any time you need it."
"Not if I see you coming in time to make a getaway," retorted Steve with a laugh.
As the range-rider passed lightly down the walk there drifted back to the prizefighter the words of a cowboy song:—
"Oh, bury me out on the lone prairee, In a narrow grave just six by three, Where the wild coyotes will howl o'er me— Oh, bury me out on the lone prairee."
Harrison ripped out an oath. There was a note of gentle irony about the minor strain of the song that he resented. He had given this youth the thrashing of his life, but he had apparently left his spirit quite uncrushed. What he liked was to have men walk in fear of him.
The song presently died on the lips of Steve. Harrison was on his way to call on Ruth. The man had somehow won her promise to marry him. It was impossible for Yeager to believe that the child knew what she was doing. To think of her as the future wife of Chad Harrison moved him to resentment at life's satiric paradoxes. To give this sweet young innocent to such a man was to mate a lamb with a tiger or a wolf. The outrage of it cried to Heaven. What could her mother be thinking of to allow such a wanton sacrifice?
From the first Yeager enjoyed his work with the Lunar Company. Young and full-blooded, he liked novelty and adventure, life in the open, new scenes and faces. As a film actor he did not have to seek sensations. They came to him unsought. He had the faculty of projecting himself with all his mind into the business of the moment, so that he soon knew what it was to be a noble and self-conscious hero as well as an unmitigated villain.
One day he was a miner making his last stand against a band of Mexican banditti, the next he was crawling through the mesquite to strike down an intrepid ranger who laughed at death. He fought desperate single combats, leaped from cliffs into space or across bridgeless chasms, took part in dozens of sets illustrating scenes of frontier life as Billy Threewit conceived these. Sometimes Steve smiled. The director's ideas had largely been absorbed in New York from reading Western fiction. But so long as he drew down his two-fifty a day and had plenty of fun doing it, Steve was no stickler for naked realism. The "bad men" of Yeager's acquaintance had usually been quiet, soft-spoken citizens, notable chiefly for a certain chilliness of the eye and an efficient economy of expression that eliminated waste. Those that Threewit featured were of a different type. They strutted and bragged and made gun plays on every possible occasion.
Perhaps this was why Harrison's stuff got across. By nature a swaggering bully, he had only to turn loose his real impulses to register what the director wanted of a bad man. In the rough-and-tumble life he had led, it had been Yeager's business to know men. He made no mistake about Harrison. The fellow might be a loud-mouthed braggart; none the less he would go the limit. The man was game.
Lennox met Steve one day as the latter was returning from the property room with a saddle Threewit had asked him to adjust. The star stopped him good-naturedly.
"Care to put the gloves on with me some time, Yeager?"
The cowpuncher's face brightened. "I sure would. The boys say you're the best ever with the mitts."
"I'm a pretty good boxer, but I don't trail in your class as a fighter. What you need is to take some lessons. If you'd care to have me show you what I know—"
"Say, you've rung the bell first shot."
"Come up to the hotel to-night, then. No need advertising it. Harrison might pick another quarrel with you to show you what you don't know."
Steve laughed. "He's ce'tainly one tough citizen. He can look at a pine board so darned sultry it begins to smoke. All right. Be up there to-night, Mr. Lennox."
From that day the boxing lessons became a regular thing. The claim Lennox had made for himself had scarcely done him justice. He was one of the best amateur boxers in the West. In Yeager he had a pupil quick to learn. The extra was a perfect specimen physically, narrow of flank, broad of shoulder, with the well-packed muscles of one always trained to the minute. Fifteen years in the saddle had given him a toughness of fiber no city dweller could possibly equal. Nights under the multiple stars in the hills, cool, invigorating mornings with the pine-filled air strong as wine in his clean blood, long days of sunshine full of action, had all contributed to make him the young Hermes that he was. Cool and wary, supple as a wildcat, light as a dancing schoolgirl on his feet, he had the qualities which go to help both the fighter and the boxer. Lennox had never seen a man with more natural aptitude for the sport.
Sometimes Farrar was present at these lessons. Often Baldy Cummings, who liked the cowpuncher because Steve was always willing to help him get the properties ready for the required sets, would put on the gloves with him and try him out for a round or two. Manderson, the melancholy comedian, occasionally dropped in with some other member of the company.
The same thought was in the mind of all of them except Yeager himself. The extra was being trained to meet Harrison. It was apparent to all of them that the prizefighter was nursing a grudge. The jaunty insouciance of the young range-rider irritated him as a banderilla goads a bull in the ring.
"Steve gets under his hide. Some day he's going to break loose again," Farrar told Manderson as they watched Lennox and Yeager box.
"The kid shapes fine. If Mr. Chad Harrison waits long enough he's liable to find himself in trouble when he tackles that young tiger cub," answered the comedian. "Ever see anybody quicker on his feet? Reminds me of Jim Corbett when he was a youngster."
The news of the boxing lessons traveled to Harrison. He set his heavy jaw and waited. He intended that Yeager should go to the hospital after their next mix-up.
Meanwhile he found other causes for disliking the new man. Always a vain man, his jealousy was inflamed because Steve was a better rider than he. At any time he was ready with a sneer for what he called the cowpuncher's "grandstanding."
"It gets across, Harrison," Threewit told him bluntly one day. "We've never had a rider whose work was so snappy. He's doing fine."
"Watch him blow up one of these days—nothing to him," growled the heavy.
"There's a whole lot to him," disagreed the producing director as he walked away to superintend the arrangement of a set.
Several days after this some new horses were added to the remuda of the Lunar Company. Harrison picked a young mustang to ride in a chase scene they were going to pull off. The pony was a wiry buckskin with powerful flanks and withers. The prizefighter was no sooner in the saddle than it developed that the animal had not been half broken. It took to pitching at once and presently spilled the rider.
Steve, sitting on the corral fence with Jackson and Orman, two other riders for the company, called across cheerfully,—
"Not hurt, are you?"
The heavy got up swearing. "Any of your damned business, is it?"
He caught at the pony bridle, jerked it violently, and hammered the lifted head of the dancing mustang with his fist. After several attempts he succeeded in kicking its ribs. Yeager said nothing, but his eyes gleamed. In the cow country men interfere rarely when a vicious rider abuses his mount, but such a man soon finds himself under an unvoiced ban.
Harrison backed the mustang to a corner, swung to the saddle, and tugged savagely at the reins. Two minutes later he took the dust again. The horse had spent the interval in a choice variety of pitching that included sun-fishing, fence-rowing, and pile-driving.
To Jackson Steve made comment. "Most generally it don't pay to beat up a horse. A man's liable to get piled, and if he gets tromped on folks don't go into mourning."
Harrison could not hear the words, but he made a fair guess at their meaning. He turned toward Yeager with a snarl.
"Got anything to say out loud, young fella?"
"Only that any horse is likely to act that way when it gets its back up. I wouldn't ride a horse without any spirit."
"Think you can ride this one, mebbe?"
Without speaking Yeager slid down from the fence and approached the mustang. The animal backed away, muscles a-tremble and eyes full of fear. Steve's movements were slow, but not doubtful. He stroked the pony's neck and gentled it. His low voice murmured soft words into the alert ear cocked back suspiciously. Then, without any haste or unevenness of motion, he swung up and dropped gently into the saddle.
For an instant the horse stood trembling. Yeager leaned forward and patted the neck of the colt softly. His soothing voice still comforted and reassured. Gradually its terror subsided.
"Open the gate," Steve called to Orman.
He rode out to the creosote flats and cantered down the road. A quarter of an hour later he swung from the saddle beside Threewit.
"Plumb gentle. You can make any horse a devil when you're one yourself."
They were standing in front of the stable. Threewit started to reply, but the words were taken out of his mouth. From out of the stable strode Harrison, a cold anger in his eyes.
"That's your opinion, is it?"
Yeager's light blue eyes met his steadily. "You've heard it."
"I've heard other things, too. You're taking boxing lessons. You're going to need them, my friend."
"The sooner the quicker," answered Steve evenly.
"You'll cut that out, both of you," ordered Threewit curtly. "I'll fire you both if you don't behave."
"I'm no school-kid, Threewit. I play my own hand. Sabe?" Harrison turned his cold eyes on the range-rider. "And I serve notice right here that next time my young rube friend and me mixes you'd better bring a basket to gather up the pieces."
Yeager brushed a fly languidly from his gauntlet. "That's twice he's used the word 'friend.' I reckon he don't know I'm some particular who calls me that."
"That'll be enough, Yeager. Don't start anything here. We're a moving-picture outfit, not a bunch of pugs." Briskly the director changed the subject. "I want you to choose a couple of the boys and go down to Yarnell's after a herd of cattle we're going to need in that Tapidero Jim picture. If you need more help the old man will let you have one or two of his riders."
Harrison had turned to leave, but he stopped to examine the conchas on a pair of leathers. Steve had a fleeting thought that the man was listening; also that he was covering the fact with a manner of elaborate carelessness.
"Want I should start right away?"
"Yep. Can you get back by to-morrow night?"
"I reckon. Has Yarnell got 'em rounded up?" asked Yeager.
"He telephoned me this morning they were ready."
"Then we'd ought to reach Los Robles late to-morrow night if we hit the trail steady."
"Good enough. Who do you want to take with you?"
"I'll take Shorty and Orman."
The details were arranged on the spot. Harrison was still giving his attention to the conchas on the chaps. They were made of 'dobe dollars. He had seen Jackson wear them fifty times and had never before showed the least interest in them.
YEAGER ASKS ADVICE
Though Yeager had enjoyed immensely his month with the Lunar people, he tasted again the dust of the drag-driver with a keen pleasure. He had not yet been able to get it out of his mind that he was only playing at work with the film company. When he heard some of the others complain about long hours and dangerous stunts he wished they could have ridden on the roundup for the Lone Star outfit about a week. Arizona had tanned the complexions of the actors, but it had left most of them still soft of muscle and fiber. The flabbiness of Broadway cannot be washed out of the soul in a month.
But to-day he felt he had done a man's work. It had been like old times. The white dust of the desert had enwrapped them in clouds. The untempered sun had beat down a palpitating heat upon dry sand wastes. The hill cattle he was driving were as wild as deer. A dozen times some lean steer had bolted and gone racing down a precipitous hillside like a rabbit. As often Four Bits had wheeled in its tracks and pounded through clutching cholla and down breakneck inclines after the escaping three-year-old. Fierce cactus thorns had torn at the leather chaps as horse and rider had ripped through them, zigzagging across the steep mountain slope at a gallop, the pony now slithering down the shale with braced forelegs, now taking washes and inclines with the surefooted litheness of a cat.
Now stars by millions roofed the velvet night. A big moon had climbed out of a crotch of the purple hills and poured a silvery light into a valley green and beautiful with the magic touch of spring. A grove of suhuaro rose like ghostly candelabra from the hillside opposite. The mesquite carried a wealth of dainty foliage. Even the flat-leafed prickly pear blended into the soft harmony of the mellow night.
Los Robles was still half a dozen miles away and the cattle were weary from the long drive. For an hour they had seemed to smell water and the leaders made a bee-line for it, bellowing with stretched necks as they hurried forward. It was late when at last they reached the water-hole.
"Time to throw off. We'll make camp in the cool of the morning," Yeager called to Shorty.
They built a fire of dead ironwood upon which they boiled coffee and fried bacon. Bread they had brought with them. After eating, they lay at ease and smoked.
There was little danger of the tired cattle straying, but Yeager divided his party so that they should take turn about night-herding. He took the first watch himself.
The stillness of the desert night was a thing to wonder at. The silence of the great outdoors, of vast empty space, subdued the restlessness of the cattle. Many a time before the range-rider had felt the fascination of it creep into his blood as he had circled the sleeping herd murmuring softly a Spanish love-song. By day the desert was often a place of desolation and death, but under the mystic charm of night it was transformed to a panorama of soft loveliness.
He thought of many episodes in his short, turbid life. They flashed upon the screen of his memory as did the pictures of the Lunar Company upon the canvas. In his time he had mushed in Alaska, fought in Mexico, driven stage at the Nevada gold-fields, and wandered into many a lawless camp. Always he had answered the call of adventure regardless of where it led.
His thoughts were fugitive, inconsequent. Now they had to do with Daisy Ellington, the New York chorus girl whose mobile, piquant face was helping to make the Lunar reels popular. Steve was engaged in a whirlwind flirtation with her which both of them were enjoying extremely. He liked her slangy audacity, the frank good-fellowship with which she had met him. Daisy was a good sport. She might pretend to sigh for the lights of Manhattan, but she was having a tremendously good time in Arizona.
"Reach for the roof, friend. No, I wouldn't rock the boat if I was you. Sit steady and don't move."
The words came to Yeager low but imperative. Automatically his hands went into the air even as he slewed his head to find out who was voicing the curt command. A rope dropped over his arms and was jerked tight just below the knees. Very cautiously a man emerged from behind a clump of cholla. The first thing he did was to remove the automatic revolver from the cowpuncher's chaps, the second to wind the rope tightly around his legs.
Steve made no comment, asked no questions. He knew that he would find out all about it in time. Just now he was not running the show.
"I expect your arms must be tired grabbin' at the stars. Drop 'em down clost to your sides. That's fine. Lucky you didn't start anything coarse, my friend."
The man gave a low whistle, evidently a signal, then moved for the first time within range of his prisoner's eyes. He was masked and wore a soft black hat pulled well down over his forehead. A Mexican serape had been flung carelessly across his well-built shoulders.
Adroitly he bound Yeager's arms to his side by winding the rope round and round his body, after which he knotted it tightly several times at a point just between the shoulder blades.
The range-rider observed that he was a heavy-set, powerful man of about his own height. He wore plain shiny leather chaps and the usual high-heeled boots of a cowpuncher.
Presently three other men appeared out of the darkness, bringing with them Orman and Shorty, both of whom, wakened out of a sound sleep, were plainly surprised and disturbed.
Shorty was protesting plaintively. "This here ain't no way to treat a man. I ain't done nothin'. There ain't no occasion whatever for a gun play. What d'you want, anyhow? I'm no bad hombre. And me sleepin' so peaceable, too, when you shoved the hardware into my pantry, doggone it."
The three men in charge of Yeager's assistants were also masked. One of them in particular drew Steve's eyes. He was a slight, short person with the walk and bearing of a youth. He wore for a mask a red bandanna handkerchief with figures, into which holes had been cut for the eyes. The other two were Mexicans.
The heavy-set man drew them aside and gave orders in a low voice. What these were Yeager could not hear, but from the gesturing he judged the leader of the band was giving explicit directions which he expected to be obeyed to the letter. After tying up Shorty and Yeager, the Mexicans and the younger man disappeared. The steady bawling of cattle that began shortly after told what they were doing. The herd was being moved slowly toward the south from its bedding-ground.
Already Steve had suspected the true state of affairs. He needed nobody to tell him now that the cattle were to be driven across the line into Sonora to supply some of the guerilla insurgents operating in the wilds of that state. Once they were safe in Mexico the cattle would be sold to old Pasquale for a fraction of their real value, the money received in exchange for them having been wrung by that old ruffian from some prisoner he had put to the torture to give up his honest earnings.
The man who had stayed to watch Yeager and his riders finished one cigar and lit another. He held to a somber silence, smoking moodily, a vigilant eye on his prisoners. Two or three times he looked at his watch impatiently. It must have been close to midnight when he rose as if to go.
"I'm going back into the bushes," he announced. "If any of you fellas make a move to free yourself inside of half an hour I'll guarantee you die of lead poisoning sudden."
They heard him moving away in the mesquite.
Shorty swore softly. "What d' you know about this? Me, I've had buck-ague for most three hours expecting that doggoned holdup to blow the roof of my head off. I don't sabe his game, unless he's on the rustle."
"Hell! He's runnin' these cows into Sonora. It don't take any wiz to guess that," answered Orman.
Steve was already busy trying to free himself. He gave no credit to the man's assertion that they would be watched from the bushes. The leader of the rustlers was already half a mile away, lengthening the distance between them at every stride of his galloping horse. The range-rider knew that their horses had probably been driven away, but he knew, too, that if Four Bits was within hearing of his whistle he could be depended upon to answer.
The cowpuncher had offered no resistance to being tied except a passive one. He had kept his chest expanded as much as possible when the ropes had been tightened and he had braced the muscles of his arm against the pressure of the folds. Ten minutes of steady work released one arm. The rest was a matter of a few moments. With his knife he slashed the ropes that bound Shorty and Orman.
Already his whistle had brought an answer from Four Bits. Five minutes later Steve was astride the barebacked horse galloping across country toward Los Robles. His friends he had left to follow on foot as best they could. He had a very particular reason why he wanted to reach the hotel as soon as possible. A suspicion had bitten into his mind. He wanted to verify or dismiss it.
An hour later Four Bits pounded down the main street of Los Robles. Almost simultaneously Yeager brought the horse slithering to a halt and with one lithe swing of his body landed on the ground in front of the hotel porch. He ran up the steps and into the lobby. Behind his cage the night clerk was drowsing.
"Anybody come into the hotel the last thirty minutes?" Yeager asked sharply.
The clerk thought. "No, I reckon not. There was Mr. Simmons—but that was most an hour since."
The range-rider turned to the stairs, took them three at a time, and followed the corridor to Room 217. He hammered on the door with his fist.
A sleepy voice wanted to know who was there.
"It's Steve Yeager, Mr. Threewit. I wanta see you."
"You've got all to-morrow to see me in, haven't you?"
"My business won't wait."
Grumbling, the producing director got up. Presently he opened the door and stood revealed in a dressing-gown over his pajamas.
"What do you want, my anxious friend?"
"We've been held up."
"Held up!" A slow grin spread over Threewit's fat good-natured face. "Well, I'll bet Mr. Holdup didn't get a mint off you lads."
"He didn't bother with us. It was the cattle he wanted. They've driven them across the line. At least, I reckon so."
Threewit woke up instantly. "That's different. Unload your story, Yeager."
The extra told it in six sentences.
"Of course you didn't know any of the holdups. They were masked, you say?"
"Yep." Steve's cool, steady eyes held those of the director. "But I've got a fool notion just the same that I do know one of them. Come with me to Harrison's room."
"I'll do all the talking. Come along."
"Now, see here, Yeager. Just because you and Harrison are at outs—"
"Have I made any charges against him? Maybe I want to ask his advice. Maybe he could help us straighten out this thing. Got to pull together, haven't we?" A cynical light in the eyes of the young man contradicted his words.
Reluctantly the director followed the extra to the room of the heavy on the third floor. Yeager knocked. He rapped again, and a third time.
Drowsily a voice demanded what was wanted. Presently the door was flung open and Harrison stood blinking in the doorway, heavy-eyed and slumberous.
"What's the row?" he growled, scowling at Yeager.
"We were held up on the way from Yarnell's by rustlers. They drove the cattle away and left us tied up."
"That any reason why you should wake me in the middle of the night? I ain't got your cattle under the bed." The heavy jaw of the prizefighter stood out saliently. Unconsciously his figure had drooped to the crouch of defense. His small black eyes were wary and defiant.
The cowpuncher laughed, lightly and easily. "I'm only a kid. Mr. Threewit comes from the East and don't know anything about this rustling game. We thought of you right away."
"What do you mean you thought of me?"
Yeager's eyes were innocent and steady. "Why, o' course we came to you for advice—to ask you what we'd better do."
"Oh! That's it, eh?" Was there the faintest flitter of relief on the lowering face? Steve could not be sure. "Well, I'll dress and join you downstairs, Mr. Threewit. With you in a minute."
"We got no time to lose. Mind if we talk here, Harrison?" Without waiting for permission the extra pushed into the room and began his story. "Must 'a' been about six miles back that we threw off the trail and camped. I figured on getting in early in the forenoon. Well, I was night-herding when I got orders to punch a hole in the atmosphere with my fists. I didn't do a thing but reach for the sky. A big masked guy come out from the mesquite and helped himself to my gun. Then he tied me up."
"Would you know him again if you saw him?" interrupted the prizefighter harshly.
The gaze of Yeager met his blandly. There was the least possible pause, and with it a certain tension. The younger man smiled. "Why, how could I, seeing he was masked? He was a big sulky brute. I've a notion I'd know his voice again if I heard it, though."
"Think so?" In Harrison's voice was a jeer, derision in the half-shuttered eyes that watched the other man vigilantly.
"His hair was about the same color as yours," added Steve in a matter-of-fact voice.
The underhung jaw of the prizefighter shot out. "Meaning anything particular?"
"Why, no," replied Steve in amiable surprise. "What could I mean?"
"How do I know what every buzzard-head's got in his cocoanut?"
Steve continued his story, giving fuller details. His casual glances wandered about the room. They found no mask, no Mexican serape, no black felt hat. Since he had not expected to see these in plain view he was not disappointed. A belt with a scabbarded revolver lay on the table. The extra wondered whether it was the same weapon that had been pressed against the back of his neck a few hours earlier. The boots lying half under the bed were white with the dust of travel, but this was nothing unusual.
"You can have my advice gratis if you want it." Harrison addressed himself pointedly to Threewit. "Send back to old man Yarnell's and you'll find the cattle straying in about day after to-morrow."
"But, if rustlers took them—"
The big man laughed unpleasantly. "Forget it, Mr. Threewit. A fairy tale to explain how-come your faithful cowboys to drap asleep and let the bunch stray. I reckon a little too much redeye in camp is the c'rect explanation."
Yeager smiled, saying nothing.
"And now I'm going to beat it for the hay again, Mr. Threewit. If you recollect, I told you some one was going to blow up pretty soon. Good-night."
As they walked back down the corridor Steve asked one question of the director. "Did it strike you he was a leetle too sleepy at first and just a leetle too quick to get that chip on his shoulder?"
"No, it didn't," snapped Threewit. Nobody likes to be dragged out of bed at two A.M., to hear bad news, and the director was merely human. "It makes me tired the way you two fellows shoot off about each other."
"He's a pretty slick proposition," Yeager went on, unmoved. "He hit the high spots back to town so as to have his alibi ready—didn't leave any evidence floating around loose in his room. He must have come up the back way so as to slip in without being noticed by the night clerk. At that he couldn't have reached here more than a few minutes before me."
"Quite a Sherlock Holmes, aren't you?"
"Bet you a week's salary that if we go out to the stables we find one of the horses still wet with sweat from a long run."
"Go you once," retorted Threewit promptly. "Wait just a jiffy till I get more clothes on."
Steve's prediction was verified. White Stockings, one of the fastest mounts in the remuda of the company, had been brought in from a long hard run within the past half-hour. Its flanks were stained with sweat and the marks of the saddle chafed its still moist back.
"You win," admitted Threewit. "But that doesn't prove Harrison was on its back."
"No. Say, what about giving me a week off, Mr. Threewit?"
"I've just taken a notion to travel some. Mebbe I might run acrost those cattle that strayed back to Yarnell's whilst I was sleeping."
The director looked at him sharply. "All right. Go to it, son."
PLUCKING A PIGEON
Steve slept almost around the clock. He lost breakfast, but was there promptly for luncheon with the appetite of a harvest hand. During the two days' drive he had missed the good home cooking of Mrs. Seymour and he intended to make up for it.
Orman and Shorty had reached town some time about daylight and had spread the story of the holdup, so that the dining-room was humming with excitement. A dozen questions were flung at Steve before he had well taken his seat. He threw up his hands in surrender.
Before he had finished telling his edited story, Shorty drifted in and divided the interest. The little extra promptly took the stage away from Yeager, whereupon Daisy Ellington absorbed the attention of Steve. She asked a sharp question or two which he answered blandly. It was not his intention to communicate any suspicions he happened to have.
They were waiting for the dessert. Daisy put her lean, pretty elbows on the table and her chin in her little doubled fists. A provocative audacity was in the tilted smile she flashed at him.
"Breeze on, Steve. You're doin' fine. Next scene."
"Say, do I look like I was born yesterday? See any green in my eye, Cactus Center?"
He grinned. "You're sure wise, compadre. But the rest is mostly suspicions."
"I'm listening," she nodded.
"You're such a Sherlock Holmes I'd hate to go out with the boys if I was married to you."
"I'm your friend and wouldn't wish any such bad luck on you," she countered gayly. Then, in a lower voice, with a sudden gravity: "Is it Harrison, Steve?"
Amazement sparkled for a moment in his eyes. "With your imagination, Daisy,—" he was beginning when she cut him short.
"You gotta tell me what's on your chest, you transparent kid."
He knew she could keep a secret like a well. Looking round guardedly, his voice fell to a whisper. "If I'd reached town ten minutes earlier I'd 'a' beat him in and showed him up. Threewit won't hear to it, of course, but the man that held me up was Chad Harrison. Take it or leave it. Just the same it's a fact."
Daisy nodded rapidly several times. "I take it, Steve. Always did know there was something shady about the big stiff. And I'll tell you something else you don't know. It's through that wild young colt brother of hers that he's got a strangle hold on Ruth."
Yeager set his lips to a noiseless whistle. "You mean—?"
She flung his question aside with an impatient wave of her hand. "I can't tell you what I mean. I've got no evidence. But it's true. She's ridiculously fond of that young scamp Phil. Somehow—in some way—Harrison has got the whip hand over him."
His eyes fell on the slender girl waiting on the table at the other end of the room. Her look met his. It almost seemed as if she knew they had been talking about her, for the milky cheek took on a shell-pink tinge. The long lashes fluttered down and she busied herself at once about her work.
"If she was my sister—"
Daisy did not need a completed sentence to understand his meaning. "Can you beat it?" she asked with a shrug. "Any gink that knows enough to come in out of the rain could tell that Chad Harrison is a bad egg. Give him the once over and you can see that."
After Ruth had arranged the tables for dinner she stole out to the porch for a breath of fresh air. Already the approach of an Arizona summer was beginning to make itself felt during the middle of the day. Yeager sat beneath the wild cucumber vines pleating a horsehair hatband for Daisy Ellington.
Ruth liked this brown, lithe cowpuncher, all sinew and bone and muscle. His smile was so warm and friendly, his manner so boyish and yet so competent. To look into his kind, steady eyes was to know that he could be trusted.
She moved in his direction shyly, a touch of pink blooming in her soft cheeks. Ruth was charmingly unsure of herself. It was always easy to disturb her composure. Even a casual encounter with the slim, brown-faced range-rider was an adventure for her. Now her pansy eyes deepened in color with excitement, with the tremulous fear of what she was to learn.
"Mr. Yeager, I—wanted to ask you about—about the holdup."
"What about it, Miss Ruth?"
"Did you—know any of them?"
"How could I? They were masked." His eyes had taken on a film of wariness that blotted out for the moment their kindness.
"I didn't know—I thought, perhaps,—" She tried a new start. "Did you say that three of them were Mexicans?"
"Two of them," he corrected.
There was the least quiver of her lip. "The others were—both big men, didn't you say?"
"I didn't say."
A footstep sounded on the crisp gravel walk. Steve looked up, in time to catch the flash of warning menace Harrison sent toward the girl.
"Mr. Yeager has been having a pipe-dream, Ruth. Don't wake him up," jeered the heavy.
Ruth fled unobtrusively and left the men alone.
"Hear you're going on a vacation," said Harrison gruffly.
"You've heard correct." Yeager pleated his hatband with steady fingers. His voice was even and placid.
Harrison looked him over with indolent insolence. "Some folks find this climate don't agree with them. Some folks find it better to drift out, casual-like, y' understand?"
"I'm tellin' it to you straight."
"That you're going to leave? The Lunar Company will miss you," suggested the range-rider politely.
"Think you're darned clever, don't you? It's you that's leaving the company, Mr. Yeager."
"For a week."
"Hadn't heard of it. News to me," answered Steve lightly.
"I'm givin' you the tip. See?"
"Oncet I knew a fellow who lived to be 'most ninety minding his own business," observed the cowpuncher to the world in general as he held up and examined his work.
"It ain't considered safe to get gay with me. I'm liable to lam your head off," threatened the big man sullenly.
"And then again you're liable not to. I'm not freightin' with your outfit, Mr. Harrison. Kindly lay off of me and you'll find we get along fine."
Steve rose and passed on his way to the street. Harrison was in two minds whether to force an issue again with him, but something in the contour of that close-gripped jaw, in the gleam of the steady eyes, was more potent than the dull rage surging in him. He let the opportunity pass.
Four Bits carried Yeager away from Los Robles at a road gait. Horse and rider were taking the border trail. It led them through a desolate country of desert where the flat-leafed prickly pear and the occasional pudgy creosote were the chief forms of vegetable life. Now and again a swift might be seen basking on a rock or a Gila monster motionless on the hillside. The ominous buzz of a rattler more than once made the pony sidestep. Mesa and flat and wash succeeded each other monotonously.
It was after sunset when they drew up at a feed corral in Arixico. Steve looked after his horse and sauntered down the little adobe street to a Chinese restaurant which ostentatiously announced itself as the "New York Cafe." This side of the business street was in the territory of Uncle Sam, the other half floated the Mexican flag. After he had eaten, the young man drifted across to one of the gambling-houses that invited the patronage of Americans and natives alike.
He found within the heterogeneous gathering usually to be observed in such a place. Vaqueros brushed shoulders with Chinese laundrymen, cowpunchers with soldiers, peons with cattlemen from Arizona and Texas. Here were miners and soldiers of fortune and plain tramps. More than one of the shining-eyed gamblers had a price upon his head. Several were outlaws. A score or more had taken part in the rapine and the pillage of the guerrilla warfare that has of late years been the curse of the country. It would have been hard in a day's travel to find an assembly where human life was held at less value.
Among these lawless, turbulent siftings of the continent Yeager was very much at home. He merged inconspicuously into the picture, a quiet, brown-faced man with cool, alert eyes. Nobody paid the least attention to him. He might be a horse-thief or an honest cowpuncher. It was a matter of supreme indifference to those present. Experience in that outdoor frontier school which always keeps open session had taught them that a man lived longer here when he minded his own business.
Steve stood close to the bar. A prospector leaned against it and talked to an acquaintance while they drank their beer.
"This here's how I figure it," he was saying. "I had a little dough when I begun digging gopher holes in these here hills. Not much—say fifteen hundred, mebbe. I sure ain't got it now. Lost it in a hole in the ground. Well; I reckon I'll go on looking for it where I lost it."
Casually Yeager sauntered over to the roulette table. A fat man in duck trousers—he was the agent for a firm of rifle manufacturers, Steve learned later—was bucking the wheel hard. In front of him lay a pile of gold-pieces and several stacks of chips. He was very red in the face from excitement and cocktails. The range-rider put a half-dollar on the red and won. He let it ride, won again, and shifted the chips to the black. Once more the goddess of luck favored him. He divided his pile. Half went on the red, the rest on the first number his eye caught. It happened to be seventeen. The croupier spun the wheel again. The ball whirled round, dipped down once or twice, and plumped into the compartment numbered seventeen.
"Enough's a-plenty. Here's where I cash in," announced Steve cheerfully.
He stuffed the bills carelessly into his pocket and strolled over to the faro table. Yeager had come on business, not for pleasure. He intended to play just enough to give a colorable reason for his presence.
His roving eye settled upon the poker table at the rear of the room. Five men were playing. Two were Mexicans, three white. Two of the Americans were dismissed from Steve's mind with a casual glance. They were negligible factors. The third had his back to the observer, but the figure had a slender, boyish trimness that spoke of youth. The Mexican sitting to his right was a square-built fellow of forty with a scar on the cheek running from mouth to ear. There was on his face a certain ugliness of expression, a furtive cruelty. That there was an understanding between him and the man opposite soon became apparent to Yeager. They cross-raised the boy, working together to mulct him of the pile of chips in front of him.
It was the Mexican who sat with his back to the wall that drew and held the cowpuncher's eye. He too was slender, not much past thirty, but with the youth long since stamped out of his face. Sleek and black, a dominant personality, he sat there warily as a rattlesnake, dark eyes gleaming from a masked, smiling countenance.
The boy was the pigeon, and it was the Mexicans that were plucking him. So much Steve learned within two minutes. He had cut his eye teeth at poker, and he saw at a glance that this was no game for a youngster. Quietly he moved a step or two closer along the wall. He observed the play without appearing to do so.
The tension of the game was relieved with casual conversation. The two negligibles, playing about even, contributed mostly to it. The bulky Mexican added his quota. The boy, a heavy loser, concealed his feelings under the bravado expected of a good sport.
They were playing jack pots with a stripped deck, the joker going as a fifth ace or to fill a straight or a flush. Several hands were dealt without any stayers. The slender Mexican was dealing when the sensation of the game was handed out.
One of the negligibles opened the pot. The bulky Mexican stayed.
In the slow, easy drawl of the Southwest the boy spoke. "Me, I reckon I'll have to tilt it. Got to protect your hand from these wolves, Dave." He pushed in a stack of blue chips.
The third American did not stay. It was now up to the dealer—his name, it appeared, was Ramon Culvera. After a moment's hesitation he measured a stack of blues by those the boy had put in the pot and added to it another pile of yellows. With a grunt of protest the older Mexican stayed. The man who had opened the pot dropped out.
"Enough's a-plenty. Me, I got no business trailing along with you hyenas," he explained.
"Different here," commented the boy. "My cards look good enough for another hike."
Culvera examined his hand carefully, met the raise, and picked up the deck.
The Mexican with the scar interposed. "But one moment, senor. Let us make it a good pot." He pushed in all the chips in front of him.
Yeager, standing against the wall, caught the swift flash of surprise in the eyes of the boy. He counted the chips of the Mexican and then his own. These he added to the small fortune in the center of the table.
"Call it. I'm fifty-three shy," he said in an even voice.
The range-rider knew without being told that this hand had been dealt from a cold deck for the express purpose of cleaning out the boy. From the tenseness of the lithe body, which had become, as it were, a coiled spring, he knew that the lad's suspicions were stirring to life.
The greedy little eyes of Culvera fastened on the boy. He made his first mistake. "How much you play back, Pheelip?"
The youngster answered. "I said a hundred bucks. I've got fifty-three in the pot now. That leaves forty-seven."
Culvera's raise was forty-seven dollars. The big Mexican shrugged. "Too steep for Jesus Mendoza." He threw his cards into the discard.
The boy who had been called Philip laid his cards face down on the table in front of him.
"Call it," he announced hoarsely. His eyes were fastened steadily on the nimble brown fingers of the dealer.
"Cards?" asked Culvera with an indolent lift of his eyebrows.
Philip hesitated. He had the nine, ten, and jack of clubs, the queen of hearts, and the joker. This counted as a king-high straight. Steve, standing back and to one side of him, guessed the boy's dilemma. Should he stand pat on his straight or discard the heart and draw to his straight flush? Culvera's play had shown great strength and would probably beat the pat hand. The lad took a chance and called for one card.
Culvera drew two. He left them lying on the table while he discarded leisurely.
"You're all in, Pheelip. It's a showdown. What you got?"
Philip had drawn the six of clubs. He spread his hand with a sweeping gesture. "All blue."
The Mexican shrugged. "Beats me unless I helped." He showed three eights, then faced the two cards he had drawn. The first was a king of diamonds, the second the fourth eight.
"Hard luck, Pheelip," he said, and all his teeth flashed in a friendly smile as he opened both arms to rake in the chips.
Philip sat silent, his mind seething with suspicions. Culvera had played his hand very strangely, unless—unless he had known that a fourth eight was waiting for him in the deck. The boy looked up, in time to catch a vanishing smile on the face of Mendoza.
"Just a moment, Ramon," he called sharply, covering the chips with his hands. "That play—it don't look good to me. A man don't play threes so strong as that."
Culvera still smiled blandly, though his eyes were very watchful. "Me, I have what you call a hunch, Pheelip."
Yeager took two steps forward. "You bet he did. Cold deck, kid. The other one is in his right-hand coat pocket."
The suavity went out of Culvera's face as a light does from a blown candle. Snarling, he rose from his seat and faced the cowpuncher.
"Liar! Cabrone!" he hissed, reaching for his gun.
Already the revolver of Mendoza was flashing in the air.
Like a streak Steve's arm swept up. Twice his revolver sounded. There was a crash of breaking glass from the incandescent lights. Yeager flung himself against the table and drove it against Culvera who reeled back against the wall and dropped his weapon. The sound of more shots, of men dodging their way to safety, of a sharp cry followed by groans, had trodden so swiftly on the heels of the range-rider's action that when he turned a moment later he saw in the semi-darkness a smoke-filled room in the confusion of chaotic movement.
Philip stood close to him, a smoking .38 in his hand, while Mendoza, clutching at his chair for support, sank slowly to the ground.
Close to the boy's ear spoke Steve. "Beat it. Make your getaway through that door. Meet me at Johanson's corral."
The boy plunged through the doorway into the darkness outside. Toward the exit after him backed the cowpuncher. Already scattered shots were being flung in his direction, but the dim light served him well. The last thing he saw before he vanished through the door was Culvera groping for his weapon.
STEVE TELLS TOO MUCH TRUTH
Yeager ducked into the night. From the door through which he had just come bullets spat aimlessly. He crouched as he ran, dodging in zigzag little rushes. Voices pursued him, fierce and threatening. Men poured from the gambling-house as seeds are squirted from a squeezed lemon.
Into a vacant lot behind a store Steve swerved, finding shelter among some empty drygoods boxes. He was none too soon, for as he sank to cover, the rush of feet padded down the sidewalk. Stealthily he crept to the fence, vaulted it lightly, and found a more secure hiding-place in the lumber yard beyond. From the top of a pile of two by fours he watched, every sense alert to catch any warning of danger.
Soon his pursuers returned in little groups to their interrupted games. Now that the first excitement of the chase was over, few of them wanted to risk a battle with desperate men in the dark. That was what the rurales and the rangers were for.
The cowpuncher slid down cautiously and left the lumber yard by way of the alley in the rear. He followed a barb-wire fence which bounded a pasture, and at the next corner crossed the street warily into United States territory. By alleys and back ways his feet took him to Johanson's stable. Noiselessly he crept toward it from the rear. Some one was inside saddling a horse. So much he could gather from the sounds. Was it Phil? Or was it some one getting ready for the pursuit? He moved a step nearer. A stick cracked beneath his foot.
The man saddling the bronco whirled, revolver in hand. "Who is it?" demanded a tense voice.
"All right, Phil." Steve moved forward, breathing easier. "Glad you made it. We'd better light a shuck out of here. They'll stir up the rurales to get after us, I reckon."
Already he was busy saddling Four Bits.
"Do you ... do you think I killed him?" jerked out the boy, a strangled sob of over-strained emotion in his throat.
"Don't know. He was asking for it, wasn't he?" answered Yeager in a matter-of-fact voice. He did not intend by an expression of sympathy to aid in any breakdown here. That could come later when they had put many miles between them and Arixico.
They led their horses out of the stable and swung to the saddles not a minute too soon. A man came running toward them.
"Hold on," he called. "Just a moment. I'm the sheriff. They say a man has been killed."
The fugitives put spurs to their broncos. The animals jumped to a canter. Over his shoulder Steve looked back. The sheriff was standing undecided. Before it penetrated his brain that these were the men he wanted they were out of range.
For a time they rode in silence except for the clicking of the hoofs. Yeager turned, his hand on the rump of his pony.
"Don't hear anything of them. We've made a clean getaway, looks like. But they'll keep the wires warm after us—if Mendoza is dead."
The boy broke down, sobbing. "My God, I couldn't help it. What else could I do? He was shooting when I fired."
"Sure he was, but that won't help you if they take you back to Mexico. My advice is for you to get into a hole and draw it in after you, for a few days anyhow. Where do you live?"
"At Los Robles—when I'm at home."
"Then you are Phil Seymour?"
"Who told you?" flashed the boy.
"I board with your mother. I'm a rider for the Lunar Company."
"Then you know Chad Harrison. Chad will get me out of this. He'll fix it."
"How'll he fix it?" demanded Yeager bluntly. "Back there across the line they're going to call this by an ugly name—if Mendoza cashes in his checks. Harrison can't fix murder, can he?"
A film of hard wariness covered the eyes of the boy as he looked across in the darkness at the other man. "He's got friends," was the dry, noncommittal answer that came to the range-rider after a moment's distinct pause.
Yeager asked no more questions. There had been a "No trespass" sign in Phil's manner. But as they rode silently toward Los Robles Steve's mind groped again with the problem of Harrison's relation to those in power across the border. Was the man tied up with old Pasquale? Or was he an agent of the Huerta Government? Just now the Federals had control of this part of the border. Did the boy mean that it was among them that Harrison had friends? It looked that way, and yet—The cowpuncher could not get it out of his head that the stolen cattle had been for old Pasquale. Huerta's lieutenants were too wary to stock their pantry from the United States in that fashion.
They rode into Los Robles in the first gray stirrings of dawn, long before anybody in the little town was afoot.
"Where are you going to hide? First place they'll look for you will be at home," suggested Yeager.
"There's a haystack out in the Lunar pastures. I'll lay low there. Tell Chad when you see him, and have Ruth fix me up something to eat."
They parted, each of them to get in what sleep was possible before day. When Steve was awakened by the sound of some one stirring in the next room it seemed as though he had been in bed only a few minutes.
He walked up to the hotel before breakfast and saw Harrison as the actor was going into the dining-room. The big man stopped in his tracks and shot out a heavy jaw at him.
"Thought you was giving our eyes a rest for a while," he growled.
Yeager declined to exchange compliments with him. "There's a friend of yours on the haystack in the pasture. He wants to see you soon as it's convenient."
The eyes of the pugilist narrowed. "Put a name to him."
"What's he doing here?" demanded Harrison blackly.
"Perhaps you'd better ask him." Steve turned on his heel and walked back to his boarding-house.
His arrival at the breakfast table was greeted with a chorus of exclamations. What was he doing back so soon? Had he got homesick? Had he run out of money already?
He let them worm out of him that he had ridden away and forgotten his purse and that upon discovering this he had come back for the supplies of war. They joked him unmercifully, even Daisy,—who was manifestly incredulous about his explanation,—and he accepted their hilarious repartee with the proper amount of sheepish resentment.
After the meal was over he lingered to see Ruth, who had just sat down to eat.
"Can I see you alone, Miss Ruth?"
She flashed a quick look at him, doubtful and apprehensive. "In the pergola, almost right away."
The girl reached the vine-draped entrance of the pergola shortly after Yeager. Manifestly her fears had been growing in the interval since he had left her.