The Cow Puncher
by Robert J. C. Stead
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[Frontispiece: The Cow Puncher]

The Cow Puncher



Author of "The Homesteaders," "Kitchener and Other Poems," "The Bail Jumper," "Songs of the Prairie," "Prairie Born," "The Empire Builders," etc.




Copyright Canada, 1918


Publishers ———— TORONTO




The Cow Puncher . . . . . . Frontispiece

These long rides afforded her many side-lights on the remarkable nature of her escort.

"You aren't talking to-day . . . what's wrong?"

"There is only one answer, Dave. Because I love you."



The shadows of the spruce trees fell north-eastward, pointing long, cool fingers across belts of undulating prairie, or leaning lazily against the brown foothills. Like an incandescent globe the afternoon sun hung in the bowl of a cloudless heaven, filmy with heat, but the hot rays were met by the high altitude of the ranch country and lost their force like a blow half struck. And among the spruce trees it was cool and green, and clear blue water rippled over beds of shining gravel.

The ranch buildings lay a little to the rear, as though the trees stood sentinel between them and the prairies. The house was of round straight logs; the shingles of the squat roof were cupped and blistered with the suns of many summers. Refuse loitered about the open door; many empty tins; a leaky barrel, with missing hoops; boxes, harness, tangled bits of wire. Once there had been a fence; a sort of picket fence of little saplings, but wild bronchos had kicked it to pieces and range steers had straggled unscarred across its scattered remnants.

Forward, and to the left, was the corral; mill slabs on end, or fences of lodge-pole pine; a corner somewhat covered in, offering vague protection from the weather. The upper poles were worn thin with the cribbing of many horses.

The sunlight bathed the scene; nursed it in a soft, warm silence. The desertion seemed absolute; the silence was the silence of the unspoken places. But suddenly it was broken by a stamping in the covered part of the corral, and a man's voice saying, "Hip, there; whoa, you cayuse; get under your saddle! Sleepin' against a post all day, you sloppy-eye. Hip, come to it!"

Horse and rider dashed into the sunlight. The boy—for he was no more than a boy—sat the beast as though born to it, his lithe frame taking every motion of his mount as softly as a good boat rides the sea. His red shirt and thick hairy schaps could not disguise the lean muscularity of his figure; the broad felt hat, and the revolver at his belt, gave just the touch of romance. With a yell at his horse he snatched the hat from his head, turning to the sun a smooth, brown face and a mane of dark hair, and slapped the horse across the flank with his crumpled headgear. At the signal the animal sprang into the air, then dashed at a gallop down the roadway, bearing the boy as unconcerned as a flower on its stem.

Suddenly he brought his horse to a stop; swung about, and rode back at a gentle canter. A few yards from the house he again spurred him to a gallop, and, leaning far down by the animal's side, deftly picked a bottle from among the grass. Then he circled about, repeating this operation as often as his eye fell on a bottle, until he had half-a-dozen; then down the road again, carefully setting a bottle on each post of the fence that skirted it to the right.

Again he came back to the house, but, when he turned, his eye was on the row of posts, and his right hand lay on the grip of his revolver. Again his sharp yell broke the silence and the horse dashed forward as though shot from a gun. Down the road they went until within a rod of the first bottle; then there was a flash in the sunlight, and to the clatter of the horse's hoofs came the crack-crack of the revolver. Two bottles shivered to fragments, but four remained intact, and the boy rode back, muttering and disappointed.

He reasoned with his horse as he rode. "'Taint no use, you ol' slop-eye; a fellow can't get the bede if he ain't got the fillin'; cooked meals an' decent chuck. I could plug 'em six out o' six—you know that, you ol' flop-ears; don't you argue about it, neither—when I'm right inside my belt I smash 'em six out o' six, but I ain't right, an' you know it. You don't know nothin' about it; you never had a father, leastways, you never had to be responsible for one. . . . Well, it's comin' to a finish—a damn lame finish, you know that. You know—"

But he had reloaded his revolver and set up two more bottles. This time he broke four, and was better pleased with himself. As he rode back his soliloquy was broken by a strange sound from beyond the belt of trees. The horse pricked up his ears, and the boy turned in the saddle to listen.

"Jumpin' crickets, what's loose?" he ejaculated. He knew every sound of the foothill country, but this was strange to him. A kind of snort, a sort of hiss; mechanical in its regularity, startling in its strangeness, it came across the valley with the unbroken rhythm of a watch-tick.

"Well, I guess it won't eat us," he ventured at last. "We'll just run it down and perhaps poke a hole in it." So saying, he cantered along the road which skirted the spruce trees, crossed the little stream and swung up the hill on the farther side.

He was half way up when a turn in the road brought him into sudden sight of the strange visitor. It was the first he had seen, but he knew it at once, for the fame of the automobile, then in its single-cylinder stage, had already spread into the farthest ranching country. The horse was less well informed. Whether or not in that moment he recognized the great rival of his race must be left to some analyst of horse character, but he bucked and kicked in rage and terror. But the boy was conscious not so much of the horse as of two bright eyes turned on him in frank and surprised admiration.

"What horsemanship!" she exclaimed, but the words had scarce left her lips when they were followed by a cry of alarm. For the car had taken a sudden turn from the road and plunged into a growth of young poplars that fringed the hillside. The oldish man at the wheel gave it a violent wrench, but left his motor in gear, and the car half slid, half plowed its way into semi-vertical position among the young trees. The two occupants were thrown from their seat; the girl fell clear, but her father was less fortunate.

In an instant the boy had flung himself from his horse, dropping the reins to the ground, and the animal, although snorting and shivering, had no thought of disgracing his training by breaking his parole. With quick, ungainly strides the boy brought himself to the upturned machine. It was curious that he should appear to such disadvantage on his feet. In the saddle he was grace personified.

For a moment he looked somewhat stupidly upon the wreck. Had it been a horse or a steer he would have known the procedure, but this experience was new to his life. Besides, there were strangers here. He had no fear of strangers when they wore schaps and coloured handkerchiefs, but a girl in a brown sweater and an oldish man with a white collar were creatures to be approached with caution. The oldish man was lying on the ground, with a leg pinned under the car, and Brown Sweater raised his head against her knee and pressed his cheeks with small white fingers and looked at the boy with bright grey eyes and said, "Well, aren't you going to do anything?"

That brought him back. "Sure," he said, springing to her side. "Whada ye' want me to do?"

"I am afraid my leg is broken," said the man, speaking calmly notwithstanding his pain. "Can you get the jack out of the tool box and raise the car?"

The girl pointed to the box, and in a moment he had the jack in his hand. But it was a new tool to him and he fumbled with it stupidly. The handle would not fit, and when it did fit it operated the wrong way.

"Oh, let me have it," she cried, impatiently. In a moment she had it set under the frame of the car and was plying the handle up and down with rapid strokes. The machine began to groan with the pressure, and the boy looked on, helpless and mortified. He was beginning to realize that there were more things in the world than riding a horse, and shooting bottles. He felt a sudden desire to be of great service. And just now he could be of no service whatever.

But the foot of the jack began to sink in the soft earth, and the girl looked up helplessly. "It won't lift it," she said. "What shall we do?"

It was his chance. He was eighteen, and his wild, open life had given him muscles of steel. "Here," he said, roughly, "move his leg when I get it clear." He turned his back to the machine and crouched down until he could get his hands under the steel frame. Then he lifted. The car was in a somewhat poised position, and he was able to swing it up far enough to release the injured leg.

"Very good, my boy," said the man. "That was a wonderful lift. The leg is broken—compound. Can you get some way of moving me to shelter? I will pay you well."

The last words were unfortunate. Hospitality in the ranching country is not bought and sold.

"You can't pay me nothin'," he said rudely. "But I can bring a light wagon, if you can ride in that, and put you up at the ranch. The old man's soused," he added, as an afterthought, "but it's better than sleepin' out. I won't be long."

He was back at his horse, and in a moment they heard the clatter of hoofs galloping down the hillside.

The girl sat on the ground and rested her father's head in her lap. Tears made her bright eyes brighter still.

"Don't cry, Reenie," he said, gently. "We are very lucky to be so close to help. Of course, I'll be laid up for awhile, but it will give you a chance to see ranch life as it really is"—He winced with pain, but continued, "I fancy we shall find it plain and unveneered. What a horseman! If I could run an automobile like he does a horse we should not be here. Did you notice that I didn't release the clutch? Just ambled into this predicament—embraced it, I might say."

"He's strong," she said. "But he's rude."

"The best fields for muscle are often poor schools for manners," he answered. "But manners are no substitute for hospitality, and he seems to have that, all right. It is something that belongs to the open country, the big, open country. In cities they entertain, but in the ranching country they, why, there isn't any word for it, but you will see for yourself."

He was soon back with a wagon and a stretcher. He avoided the eyes of his guests, but quickly and gently enough he placed the injured man on the stretcher. "I guess you'll have to take the feet," he said. The words were for the girl, although he did not look at her. "I could hustle him myself, but it might hurt 'im."

But the injured man interrupted. "I beg your pardon," he said, "that I did not introduce my daughter. I am Doctor Hardy—this is my daughter, Irene, Mr.——?"

"They don't call me mister," said the boy. "Misters is scarce in these woods. My name is Elden—Dave Elden."

He was for dropping it at that, but the girl came up with extended hand. He took it shyly, but it made him curiously bold. "I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Elden," she said.

"I'm glad to meet you, too," he answered. "Misses is scarcer than misters in this neck o' the woods."

Carefully they lifted the injured man into the wagon, and Dave drove to the ranch building with an unwonted caution that must have caused strange misgivings in the hearts of his team.

"It ain't much of a place," he said, as they pulled up at the door. "I guess you can see that for yourself," he added, with a grin. "You see, there's just Dad and me, and he's soused most of the time, and I handle a lasso better'n a scrubbin' brush." He was already losing his shyness. "Now, you take the feet again. Steady, don't break any more bones. Look out for that barrel hoop. This way, now."

He led into the old ranch house, kicking the door wider open with his heel as he passed. A musty smell fell on the senses of the girl as she entered, and she was conscious of the buzzing of innumerable flies. A partition from east to west divided the house, and another partition from north to south divided the northern half. In the north-east room they set the stretcher on the floor.

"Now," Said the boy, "I'm goin' for the doctor. It's forty miles to town, and it'll likely be mornin' before I'm back, but I'll sure burn the trail. You'll have to make the best of it," he continued, impersonally addressing the much-spotted window. "There's grub in the house, and you won't starve—that is, if you can cook." (This was evidently for Irene. There was a note in it that suggested the girl might have her limitations.) "Dig in to anythin' in sight. And I hope your father's leg won't hurt very much." Irene wondered afterwards why the hope concerning her father should have been expressed to her. Did he already feel—what was it?—better acquainted with her?

"Oh, I'll stand it," said Doctor Hardy, with some cheerfulness. "We medical men become accustomed to suffering—in other people. You are very kind. My daughter may remain in this room, I suppose? There is no one else?"

"No one but the old man," he answered. "He's asleep in the next room, safe till mornin'. I'll be back by that time. That's my bed," indicating a corner. "Make yourselves at home." He lounged through the door and they heard his spurs clanking across the hard earth.

The girl's first thought was to assure as much comfort for her father as the circumstances would permit. She removed his boot and stocking, and, under his direction, slit the leg of his trousers above the injury. It was bleeding a little. In the large room of the house she found a pail with water, and she bathed the wound, wiping it with her handkerchief, and mingling a tear or two with the warm blood that dripped from it.

"You're good stuff," her father said, pressing the fingers of her unoccupied hand. "Now, if you could find a clean cloth to bandage it—"

She looked about the place, somewhat hopelessly. Her expedition to the main part of the house, when she had found the water pail, had not reassured her as to the housekeeping of the Eldens. Her father read her perplexity.

"It seems as though you would be in charge here for awhile, Reenie," he said, "so you will save time by getting acquainted at once with your equipment. Look the house over and see what you have to work with."

"Well, I can commence here," she answered. "This is Dave's room. I suppose I should say Mr. Elden's, but—what was it he said about 'mistering'? It would be splendid if it were cleaned up," she continued, with kindling enthusiasm. "These bare logs, bare floors, bare rafters—we've got back to essentials, anyway. And that's his bed." She surveyed a framework of spruce poles, on which lay an old straw mattress and some very grey blankets. "I suppose he is very tired when he goes to bed," she said, drolly, as though that could be the only explanation of sleep amid such surroundings. "And the walls give one a clue to the artistic side of his nature." A poster advertising a summer fair, with a prodigious bull occupying the centre of the picture, hung on one wall, and across from it a lithograph of a young woman, with very bright clothing and very alabaster skin and very decollete costume tendered a brand of beer with the assurance that it goes to the spot. "I ought to drape it," she said, and the curl on her lip showed smooth white teeth.

"I was forgetting I have to find a bandage for you," she suddenly remembered. "There's his trunk; it might produce something, but we will save it for a last resort. Now I will explore this main room, which I suppose is the kitchen, dining room, living room, everything."

In the south end of the larger room stood a fireplace, crudely made of slabs of native rock. The fires of many winters had crumbled the rock, so that it had fallen in in places, and was no longer employed for its original purpose. A very rusty and greasy stove now occupied the space immediately in front of the fireplace, the stove-pipe leading into the ample but tottering chimney. Near the stove was a bench supporting a tin wash-basin, a wooden pail, and certain fragments of soap—evidently all the equipment necessary for the simple ablutions of the Elden household. The remnant of a grain bag, with many evidences of use and abuse, performed the functions of towel, and a broken piece of looking-glass gave the faintest intimation that a strain of fundamental relationship links the sexes. By the western wall was a table, with numerous dishes; and to the wall itself had been nailed wooden boxes—salmon and tomato cases—now containing an assortment of culinary supplies. A partially used sack of flour, and another of rolled oats, leaned against the wall, and a trap-door in the floor gave promise of further resources beneath. There was a window in the east and another in the west, both open and unscreened; myriads of flies gave the only touch of life to the dismal scene.

Irene looked it all over, then leaned against the window sill and laughed. Her father had brought her west for holidays with the promise of changed surroundings and new experiences, but he had promised her no such delight as this. With the Elden kitchen still photographed in her mind she called up the picture of her own city home; the green lawn, faultlessly trimmed by a time-serving gardener; the floral borders, the hedges; the two stately trees; the neat walk, the wide verandah, the dim, mysterious hall; the rooms, heavily shaded to save the rich carpets; the order, the precision, the fixedness, the this-sits-here and that-stands-thereness—the flatness and emptiness and formality of it all, and she turned again to the Elden kitchen and laughed—a soft, rippling, irrepressible laugh, as irrepressible as the laughter of the mountain stream amid the evergreens. Then she thought of her mother; prim, sedate, conventional, correct—"Always be correct, my dear; there is a right way and a wrong way, and a well-bred person always chooses the right"—and her eyes sobered a trifle, then flashed in brighter merriment as they pictured her mother amid these surroundings.

"She would be so shocked, oh, dreadfully shocked," she rippled to herself. "I am quite sure she would never approve of Father breaking his leg with such consequences. It wasn't the correct thing—very commonplace, I should say—and think of Irene! Why, the child—she's but a child, Andrew, a very beautiful child, but with just a little weakness for the—ah—unconventional—she must be restrained—she needs her mother's guidance to protect her from the suggestion of maybe—shall I say?—vulgarity. That's a very dreadful word. Think of all the vulgar people there are in the world. . . . And here is dear little Irene right in the midst of it, and—horrors—revelling in it."

Then she looked again from the open window, this time with eyes that saw the vista of valley and woodland and foothill that stretched down into the opening prairie. Suddenly she realized that she was looking down upon a picture—one of Nature's obscure masterpieces—painted in brown and green and saffron against an opal canvas. It was beautiful, not with the majesty of the great mountains, nor the solemnity of the great plains, but with that nearer, more intimate relationship which is the peculiar property of the foothill country. Here was neither the flatness that, with a change of mood, could become in a moment desolation, nor the aloofness of eternal rocks towering into cold space, but the friendship of hills that could be climbed, and trees that lisped in the light wind, and water that babbled playfully over gravel ridges gleaming in the August sunshine. The girl drew a great breath of the pure air and was about to dream a new day-dream when the voice of her father brought her to earth.

"Can't you find anything that will do for a bandage?" he asked.

"Oh you dear Daddykins," she replied, her voice tremulous with self-reproach. "I had forgotten. There was a spell, or something; it just came down upon me in the window. That's a good idea, blaming one's negligence on a spell. I must remember that. But the bandage? Dear, no; the only cloth I see is the kitchen towel, and I can't recommend it. But what a goose I am! Our grips are in the car, or under it, or somewhere. I'll be back in a jiffy." And she was off at a sharp trot down the trail along which she had so recently come in Dave Elden's wagon.

At the little stream she paused. A single log was the only bridge, and although the water was not deep it ran swiftly, and still with the coldness of its glacier source. She ventured along the log, but near the centre she was seized with an acute sense of her temerity. Perhaps she had been foolish in attempting this passage without the aid of a stick. A stick, which could be shoved against the gravel below that blue water, would have been a very practical aid. Suddenly, the waverings of the mind were transmuted to the body. She felt an impetuous desire to fall upstream, which she resisted so successfully that she promptly fell down stream. The water was deeper than it looked, and colder than it looked, and when she scrambled up the farther bank she was a very wet young woman indeed. She was conscious of a deep annoyance toward young Elden. A fine bridge, that! She would tell him—but this thought died at its birth with the consciousness that Elden would be amused over the incident, and would be at little pains to disguise his merriment. And then she laughed, and ran along up the road.

The grips were duly found, and Irene congratulated herself that she and her father were in the habit of traveling with equipment for over night. She had even a spare skirt along, with which she was able to disguise her mishap at the stream, although she took the precaution not to make the change until she was safe back over the narrow bridge. And this time she used a stick. Arrived at the house, she deftly wrapped a bandage about her father's injury, and set to work at the preparation of supper—a task not strange to her, as her mother considered it correct that her daughter should have a working knowledge of kitchen affairs. Her equipment was meagre, and she spent more time scouring than cooking, but her heart beat high with the spirit of adventure.

Once, during the evening, she took a glance into the other room. It was even less inviting than Dave's, with walls bare of any adornment, save dirty garments that hung from nails driven in the logs. On the rude bed lay an old man; she could see only part of his face; a grey moustache drooping over an open mouth, and a florid cheek turned to the glow of the setting sun. On a chair beside the bed sat a bottle, and the room reeked with the smell of breath charged with alcohol. She gently closed the door, and busied herself through the long evening with reforms in the kitchen, and with little ministrations designed to relieve the sufferings of her father.

The sun sank behind the Rockies, and a darkness, soft and mystical and silent, stole up the valley, hushing even the noiseless day. Presently the glow of the rising moon burst in ruddy effulgence over the foothills to the east, first with the effect of fire upon their crests, and then as a great, slowly-whitening ball soaring high into the fathomless heaven. The girl stood framed in the open window, and the moonlight painted her face to the purest ivory, and toyed with the rich brown fastness of her hair, and gleamed from a single ornament at her throat. And she thought of the young horseman galloping to town; wondered if he had yet set out on his homeward journey, and the eerie depths of the valley communicated to her a fantastic admiration for his skill and bravery. She was under the spell. She was in a new world, where were manhood, and silence, and the realities of being; and moonlight, and great gulfs of shadow between the hills, and large, friendly stars, and soft breezes pushing this way and that without definite direction, and strange, quiet noises from out of the depths, and the incense of the evergreens, and a young horseman galloping into the night. And conventions had been swept away, and it was correct to live, and to live!


The first flush of dawn was mellowing the eastern sky when the girl was awakened from uneasy sleep by sounds in the yard in front of the ranch house. She had spent most of the night by her father's side, and although he had at last prevailed upon her to seek some rest for herself, she had done so under protest and without undressing. Now, after the first dazed moment of returning consciousness, she was on her feet and through the door.

The stars were still shining brightly through the cold air. In the faint light she could distinguish a team and wagon, and men unhitching. She approached, and, in a voice that sounded strangely distant in the vastness of the calm night, called, "Is that you, Dave?"

And in a moment she wondered how she had dared call him Dave. But she soon had other cause for wonder, for the boy replied from near beside her, in that tone of friendly confidence which springs so spontaneously in the darkness, "Yes, Reenie, and the doctor, too. We'll have Mr. Hardy fixed up in no time. How did he stand the night?"

How dared he call her Reenie? A flush of resentment rose in her breast only to be submerged in the sudden remembrance that she had first called him Dave. That surely gave him the right to address her as he had done. But with this thought came recognition of the curious fact that Dave had not presumed upon her frankness; that it was not by her word that he would attempt to justify his. Indeed, she was convinced that he would have called her Reenie anyway,—just as she had called him Dave, without premeditation or intention. Then she remembered she was in the ranch country, in the foothills, where the conventions—the conventions she hated—had not yet become rooted, and where the souls of men and women stood bare in the clear light of frank acceptance of the fact. It would be idle—dangerous—to trifle with this boy by any attempt at concealment or deception. And what were conventions but a recognized formula of concealment and deception?

She could see his form now, as he led the horses toward the corral. How straight he was, and how bravely his footsteps fell on the hard earth! The poetry of his motion reached her through the darkness. She heard the harness jingle as the horses rubbed between the posts of the corral gate.

"He's a wonderful boy," said the doctor, of whose presence she had been unconscious. "Cat's eyes. Full gallop through the dark; side hills, mountain streams, up and down; break-neck. Well, here we are." The doctor breathed deeply, as though this last fact were one to occasion some wonderment. "Your brother tells me you have an injured man here; accident; stranger, I believe? Well, shall we go in?"

Brother! But why should she explain? Dave hadn't bothered. Why hadn't he? He had told about the stranger; why had he not told about both strangers? Why had he ignored her altogether? This time came another flush, born of that keen womanly intuition which understands.

With a commonplace she led the doctor into the house and to the bedside of her father. She was struck by the change in attitude of the visiting physician when he learned that his patient was of his own profession. It was like the meeting of brothers in a secret order. There was an exchange of technical terms that might have served as password or sign into some fine fraternity, and the setting of the limb was accompanied by a running fire of professional comment as effective upon the nerves of the sufferer as an opiate.

When the operation was completed the girl turned her attention to the kitchen, where she found Dave, sweating in vicarious suffering. He had helped to draw the limb into place, and it had been his first close contact with human pain. It was different from branding calves, and he had slipped out of the room as soon as possible. The morning sun was now pouring through the window, and the distraught look on the boy's face touched her even more than the frankness of the words spoken in the darkness. She suddenly remembered that he had been up all night—for her. She would not deceive herself with the thought that it was for her father's sake Dave had galloped to town, found a doctor, secured a fresh team and driven back along the little-used foothill trails. She recalled the doctor's terse description of that journey. No doubt Dave would have done it all for her father, had her father been there alone, but as things were she had a deep conviction that he had done it for her. And it was with a greater effort than seemed reasonable that she laid her fingers on his arm and said, "Thank you, Dave."

"What for?" he asked, and she could not doubt the genuineness of his question.

"Why, for bringing the doctor, and all that. Driving all night on those awful roads. We fell off them in day time. I am sure I can't—Father won't be able to—"

"Oh, shucks," he interrupted, with a manner which, on the previous afternoon, she would have called rudeness. "That's nothin'. But say, I brought home some grub. The chuck here was pretty tame; guess you found that out last night." He looked about the room, and she knew that he was taking note of her house-cleaning, but he made no remark on the subject.

"Well, let's get breakfast," she said, after a moment's pause, and for lack of other conversation. "You must be hungry."

Dave's purchases had been liberal. They included fresh meat and vegetables, canned goods, coffee, rice and raisins. He laid the last three items on the table with a great dissembling of indifference, for he was immensely proud of them. They were unwonted items on the Elden bill of fare; he had bought them especially for her. From somewhere the knowledge had been borne in upon him that city people frequently drink coffee for breakfast, and the rice and raisins were an inspiration quite his own. He would see what she could do with them. But she busied herself at the breakfast without a thought of the epoch-marking nature of these purchases.

"Do you milk?" she asked, presently.

"Milk what?" he demanded, pausing with stove-lid and lifter raised in his hand, in the half-completed act of putting wood on the fire.

"Dave!" she cried. "Put that lid down. Look at the smoke." A blue cloud was curling under the rafters. "Yes," he said, with great composure. "It always does that in this country."

She shot a quick glance at him. Was he making fun of her? No; plainly not; he was just making fun with her; he had a vein of humor. And a little before she had found his face drawn in sympathy for her father. Perhaps for her. . . . He was not all on the surface.

He completed his operation at the stove and returned the lid to its place with no lack of deliberation. He was evidently waiting for her to speak again, but she worked on in silence.

"What did you say about milking?" he ventured at length.

"I asked you if you milked," she said, with an attempt at curtness. "And you answered, 'Milk what?' as though that were clever. And we need milk for breakfast."

"Well, I was serious enough," he said. "There isn't a cow within twenty miles."

"No cows? Why, I thought this was the ranching country?"

"Sure thing. We sell beef and buy milk. Let me show you."

He approached a packing-case on the wall, walking softly and extending his hands as though to touch it gently, and murmuring, "So boss; so boss," as he went. From the box he removed a tin of condensed milk, which he set on the table. In his pocket he found a nail, and with a hammer quickly made two holes in the tin.

"Milkin' is finished," he announced.

At this juncture the doctor, who had been resting in the room with his patient, entered the kitchen. During the setting of the limb he had gradually become aware of the position of Irene in the household, but had that not been so, one glance at the boy and girl as they now stood in the bright morning sunshine, he with his big, wiry frame, his brown face, his dark eyes, his black hair; she, round and knit and smooth, with the pink shining through her fair skin and the light of youth dancing in her grey eyes and the light of day glancing on her brown hair, must have told him they had sprung from widely separated stock. For one perilous moment he was about to apologize for the mistake made in the darkness, but some wise instinct closed his lips. But he wondered why she had not corrected him.

They were seated at breakfast when the senior Elden made his appearance. He had slept off his debauch and was as sober as a man in the throes of alcoholic appetite may be. He was only partially dressed; his face had the peculiar bulginess of the hard drinker; his eyes were watery and shifty, and several days' growth of beard, with patchy grey and black spots, gave a stucco effect to his countenance. His moustache drooped over a partly open mouth; the top of his large head was bald, and the hair that hung about his ears was much darker than his moustache. Seeing the strangers, he hesitated in his lurch toward the water pail, steadied himself on wide-spread feet, very flat on the floor, and waved his right hand slowly in the air. Whether this was to be understood as a form of salutation or a gesture of defiance was a matter of interpretation.

"Vishitors," said the old man, at length. "Alwaysh welcome, m'sure. 'Sh scush me." He made his uncertain way to the water bench, took a great drink, and set about washing his face and hands, while the breakfast proceeded in silence. As his preparations neared completion Irene set a place at the table.

"Won't you sit down here, Mr. Elden?" she said. There had been no introductions. Dave ate on in silence.

"Thank you," said the old man, and there was something in his voice which may have been emotion, or may have been the huskiness of the heavy drinker's throat. The girl gave it the former explanation. Perhaps it was his unintended tribute to that touch of womanly attentiveness to which his old heart still beat response. As he took the proffered chair she saw in this old man shreds of dignity which the less refined eye of his son had not distinguished. To Dave, his father was an affliction to be borne; an unfair load on a boy who had done nothing to deserve this punishment. The miseries associated with his parentage had gone far to make him sour and moody. Irene at first had thought him rude and gloomy; flashes of humor had modified that opinion, but she had not yet learned that his disposition was naturally a buoyant one, weighed down by an environment which had made it soggy and unresponsive. In years to come she was to know what unguessed depths of character were to be revealed when that stoic nature was cross-sectioned by the blade of a keen and defiant passion. This morning she foresaw nothing of those future revelations, but in the old man her instinct detected qualities which perhaps were awaiting only some touch of sympathetic understanding to flash forth even yet like that burst of sunset radiance which sometimes marks the close of a leaden day.

Mr. Elden promptly engaged the doctor in conversation, and in a few moments had gleaned the main facts in connection with the accident and the father and daughter which it had brought so involuntarily under his roof. He was quite sober now, and his speech, although slovenly, was not indelicate. He was still able to pay to woman that respect which curbs the coarseness of a tongue for years subjected to little discipline.

After breakfast Irene attended to the wants of her father, and by this time the visiting doctor was manifesting impatience to be away. Other fees were calling him, and he assured Doctor Hardy, what the latter quite well knew, that nothing more could be done for him at present. He would come again at any time if summoned by the young man, or if his professional duties should bring him into the neighborhood of the Elden ranch. But Dave declared with prompt finality that the horses must rest until after noon, and the doctor, willy-nilly, spent the morning rambling in the foothills. Meanwhile the girl busied herself with work about the house, in which she was effecting a rapid transformation.

After the mid-day dinner Dave harnessed the team for the journey to town, but before leaving inquired of Irene if there were any special purchases, either personal or for the use of the house, which she would recommend. With some diffidence she mentioned one that was uppermost in her thoughts: soap, both laundry and toilet. Dr. Hardy had no hesitation in calling for a box of his favorite cigars and some new magazines, and took occasion to press into the boy's hand a bill out of all proportion to the value of the supplies requested. There was an argument in the yard, which the girl did not fully hear, between father and son, but she gathered that the old man insisted on going to town, and, failing that, that Dave should replenish his stock of whiskey, to neither of which would the young man consent. It was evident that Dave was the responsible person in the affairs of the Elden ranch.

The day was introductory to others that were to follow. Dave returned the next afternoon, riding his own horse, and heavily laden with cigars, magazines, soap, and with a soft little package which proved to be a sponge, which he had bought on his own initiative, and which he tendered to Irene. She took it with slowly rising color, and with a strange misgiving whether this was a bona fide contribution to the toilet equipment of the house, or a quiet satire designed to offset the effect of the appeal for soap.

The following day it was decided that the automobile, which since the accident had lain upturned by the roadway, should be brought to the ranch buildings. Dave harnessed his team, and, instead of riding one of the horses, walked behind, driving by the reins, and accompanied by the girl, who had proclaimed her ability to steer the car. When they reached the stream she hesitated, remembering her mishap, but the boy slipped his unoccupied hand firmly under her arm, and they walked the log in safety. It seemed to Irene that he continued his assistance when it was no longer needed, but she accepted the courtesy without remark.

With the aid of the team and Dave's lariat the car was soon righted, and was found to be none the worse for its deflection from the beaten track. Irene presided at the steering wheel, watching the road with great intentness, and turning the wheel too far on each occasion, which gave to her course a somewhat wavy or undulating order, such as is found in bread knives, or perhaps a better figure would be to compare it to that rolling motion affected by fancy skaters. However, the mean of her direction corresponded with the mean of the trail, and all went merrily until the stream was approached. Here was a rather steep descent, and the car showed a sudden purpose to engage the horses in a contest of speed. The animals were suspicious enough at best of their strange wagon, and had no thought of allowing it to assume the initiative. Now, Irene knew perfectly well where the brake was, and how to use it. In fact, there were two brakes, operated by different members, and perhaps it was this duplication, intended to insure safety, that was responsible for her undoing. Her first impulse was to use the emergency, but to do so she must remove her hand from the steering wheel, where it was very fully occupied. She did start to put this impulse into effect, but an unusually violent deflection caused her to reconsider that intention. She determined to use the foot brake, a feat which was accomplished, under normal conditions, by pressing one foot firmly against a contraption somewhere beneath the steering post. She shot a quick glance downward, and to her alarm discovered not one, but three contraptions, all apparently designed to receive the pressure of a foot—if one could reach them—and as similar as the steps of a stair. This involved a further hesitation, and in automobiling he who hesitates invites a series of rapid experiences. By this time all Irene's attention was required to bring the car to some unanimity of direction. It was quite evident that it was running away. It was quite evident that the horses were running away. The situation assumed the qualities of a race, and the only matter of grave doubt related to its termination. Dave, still holding fast to the reins, ran beside the car with prodigious strides which enabled him to bring but little restraint upon the team, and Irene held to the steering wheel with a grip of desperation.

Then they struck the water. It was not more than two feet deep, but the extra resistance it caused, and the extra alarm it excited in the horses, resulted in the breaking of the lariat. Dave still clung fast to his team, and, now that the terrifying rival no longer pursued them, they were soon brought to a standstill. Having pacified them he tied them to a post and returned to the stream. The car sat in the middle; the girl had put her feet on the seat beside her, and the swift water flowed by a few inches below. She was laughing merrily when Dave, very wet in parts, appeared on the bank.

"Well, I'm not wet, except for a little splashing," she said, "and you are. Does anything occur to you?" Without reply he walked stolidly into the cold water, took her in his arms, and carried her ashore. The lariat was soon repaired and the car hauled to the ranch buildings without further mishap.

Later in the day he said to her, "Can you ride?"

"Some," she answered. "I have ridden city horses, but don't know about these ranch animals. You know, a city horse has to do as he is told, but a ranch horse seems to do pretty much as he likes. But I would like to try—if I had a saddle."

"I have an extra saddle," he said. "But it's a man's. . . . They all ride that way here."

She made no answer, and the subject was dropped for the time. But the next morning she saw Dave ride away, leading a horse by his side. He did not return until evening, but when he came the idle horse carried a saddle.

"It's a strad-legger," he said when he drew up beside Irene, "but it's a girl's. I couldn't find anythin' else in the whole diggin's."

"I'm sure it will do—splendidly—if I can just stick on," she replied. But another problem was already in her mind. It apparently had not occurred to Dave that women require special clothing for riding, especially if it's a "strad-legger." She opened her lips to mention this, then closed them again. He had been to enough trouble on her account. He had already spent a whole day scouring the country for a saddle. . . . She would manage some way.

Late that night she was busy with scissors and needle.


Dr. Hardy recovered from his injuries as rapidly as could be expected, and, while he chafed somewhat over spending his holidays under such circumstances, the time passed not unhappily. Had he sought the world over for a haven from the intrusion of business or professional cares he could have found it nowhere in greater perfection than in the foothill country centering about the Elden ranch. Here was an Arcadia where one might well return to the simple life; a little bay of still water sheltered from the onrushing tide of affairs by the warm brown prairies and the white-bosomed mountains towering through their draperies of blue-purple mist. It was life as far removed from his accustomed circles as if he had been suddenly spirited to a different planet. It was life without the contact of life, without the crowd and jostle and haste and gaiety and despair that are called life; but the doctor wondered if, after all, it did not come nearer to filling the measure of experience—which is life.

A considerable acquaintanceship had sprung up between him and the senior Elden. The rancher had come from the East forty years before, but in turning over their memories the two men found many links of association; third persons known to them both; places, even streets and houses common to their feet in early manhood; events of local history which each could recall, although from different angles. And Elden's life in the West had been a treasury of experience, in which he now dipped for the first time in years, regaling his guest with tales of the open range long before barbed wire had stuck its poisoned fang into the heart of the ranchman; tales of horse-stealing and cattle-rustling, with glimpses of sudden justice unrecorded in the official documents of the territory; of whiskey-running and excess and all those large adventures that drink the red blood of the wilderness. In his grizzled head and stooping frame he carried more experiences than would fill a dozen well-rounded city lives, and he had the story-teller's art which scorns to spoil dramatic effect by a too strict adherence to fact. But over one phase of his life he kept the curtain resolutely down. No ray of conversation would he admit into the more personal affairs of his heart, or of the woman who had been his wife, and even when the talk turned on the boy he quickly withdrew it to another topic, as though the subject were dangerous or distasteful. But once, after a long silence following such a diversion, had he betrayed himself into a whispered remark, an outburst of feeling rather than a communication. "I've been alone so much," he said. "It seems I have never been anything but alone. And—sooner or later—it gets you—it gets you."

"You have the boy," ventured the doctor.

"No," he answered, almost fiercely. "That would be different, I could stand it then. But I haven't got him, and I can't get him. He despises me because—because I take too much at times." He paused as though wondering whether to proceed with this unwonted confidence, but the ache in his heart insisted on its right to human sympathy. "No, it ain't that," he continued. "He despises me because he thinks I wasn't fair to his mother. He can't understand. He doesn't know yet that there's things—pulls and tugs of life, that lead a man as helpless as a steer chokin' in his lasso. I was like that. I wanted to be good to her, to be close to her. Then I took to booze, as natural as a steer under the brandin' iron roars to drown his hurt. But the boy don't understand." The old man got up and stood at the western window, watching the gold of approaching sunset gather on the mountains. . . . "He despises me." Then, after a long silence, "No matter. I despise myself."

The doctor approached and placed a hand on his shoulder. But Elden was himself again. The curtains of his life, which he had drawn apart for a moment, he whipped together again rudely, almost viciously, and covered his confusion by plunging into a tale of how he had led a breed suspected of cattle rustling on a little canter of ten miles with a rope about his neck and the other end tied to the saddle. "He ran well," said the old man, chuckling still at the reminiscence. "And it was lucky he did. It was a strong rope."

The morning after Dave had brought in the borrowed saddle Irene appeared in a sort of bloomer suit, somewhat wonderfully contrived from the spare skirt to which allusion has been made, and announced a willingness to risk life and limb on any horse that Dave might select for that purpose. He provided her with a dependable mount, and their first journey, taken somewhat gingerly along the principal trail, was accomplished without incident. It was the fore-runner of many others, plunging deeper and deeper into the fastnesses of the foothills, and even into the passes of the very mountains themselves. These long rides through the almost untracked wilderness, frequently along paths on which the element of danger was by no means a mere fancy, and into regions where the girl's sense of distance and direction were totally confused, afforded her many side-lights on the remarkable nature of her escort. His patience was infinite, and, although there were no silk trappings to his courtesy, it was a very genuine and manly deference he paid her. She was quite sure that he would at any moment give his life if needed to defend her from injury—and accept the transaction as a matter of course. His physical endurance was inexhaustible, and his knowledge of prairie and foothill seemed to her almost uncanny. When she had been utterly lost for hours he would suddenly swing their horses' heads about and guide them home with the accuracy of the wild goose on its nights to the nesting grounds. He read every sign of footprint, leaf, water, and sky with unfailing insight. He had no knowledge of books, and she had at first thought him ignorant, but as the days went by she had found in him a mine of wisdom which shamed her ready-made education.

After such a ride they one day dismounted in a grassy opening among the trees that bordered a mountain canyon. The waters of ages had chiselled a sharp passage through the rock, and the green stream now swirled in its rapid course a hundred feet below. Fragments of rock, loosened by the sun and wind and frost of centuries, had fallen from time to time, leaving sheltered nooks and shelves in the walls of the canyon. In one of these crevices they found a flat stone that gave comfortable seating, and here they rested while the horses browsed their afternoon meal on the grass above. Little irregular bits of stone had broken off the parent rock, and for awhile they amused themselves with tossing these into the water. But both were conscious of a gradually increasing tension in the atmosphere. For days the boy had been moody. It was evident he was harbouring something that was calling through his nature for expression, and Irene knew that this afternoon he would talk of more than trees and rocks and footprints of the wild things of the forest.

"Your father is gettin' along well," he said at length.

"Yes," she answered. "He has had a good holiday, even with his broken leg. He is looking ever so much better."

"You will be goin' away before long," he continued.

"Yes," she answered, soberly, and waited.

"Things about here ain't goin' to be the same after you're gone," he went on. He was avoiding her eyes and industriously throwing bits of crumbled rock into the canyon. He wore no coat, and the neck of his shirt was open, for the day was warm. Had he caught her side-long glances even his slow, self-deprecating mind must have read their admiration. But he kept his eyes fixed on the green water.

"You see," he said, "before you came it was different. I didn't know what I was missin', an' so it didn't matter. Not but what I was dog-sick of it at times, but still I thought I was livin',—thought this was life, and, of course, now I know it ain't. At least, it won't be after you're gone."

"That's strange," she said, not in direct answer to his remark, but as a soliloquy on it as she turned it over in her mind. "This life, now, seems empty to you. All my old life seems empty to me. This seems to me the real life, out here in the foothills, with the trees, and the mountains, and—and our horses, you know."

She might have ended the sentence in a way that would have come much closer to him, and been much truer, but conventionality had been bred into her for generations and she did not find it possible yet freely to speak the truth. Indeed, as she thought of her position here it seemed to her she had become shamelessly unconventional. She thought of her mother, careful, correct,—"Always be correct, my dear,"—and wondered what she would say could she see her only child on these wild, unchaperoned rides and in these strange confidences where she was a girl and Dave was a boy and all the artificialities with which society aims to protect itself had been stripped away. There was a dash of adventure which added to the relish of the situation.

"It's such a wonderful life," she continued. "One gets so strong and happy in it."

"You'd soon get sick of it," he said. "We don't see nothin'. We don't learn nothin'. Reenie, I'm eighteen, an' I bet you could read an' write better'n me when you was six."

"Did you never go to school?" she asked, in genuine surprise. She knew his speech was ungrammatical, but thought that due to careless training rather than to no training at all.

"Where'd I go to school?" he demanded bitterly. "There ain't a school within forty miles. Guess I wouldn't have went if I could," he added as an afterthought, wishing to be quite honest in the matter. "School didn't seem to cut no figure—until jus' lately."

"But you have learned—some?" she continued.

"Some. When I was a little kid my father used to work with me at times. He learned me to read a little, an' to write my name, an' a little more. But things didn't go right between him an' mother, an' he got to drinkin' more an' more, an' just makin' hell of it. We used to have a mighty fine herd of steers here, but it's all shot to pieces. We don't put up hardly no hay, an' in a bad winter they die like rabbits. When we sell a bunch the old man'll stay in town for a month or more, blowin' the coin and leavin' the debts go. But I've been fixin' him this year or two. I sneak a couple of steers away now an' then, an' with the money I keep our grocery bills paid up, an' have a little to rattle in my jeans. My credit's good at any store in town," and Irene thrilled to the note of pride in his voice as he said this. The boy had real quality in him. "But I'm sick of it all," he continued. "Sick of it, an' I wanna get out."

"You think you are not educated," she answered, trying to meet his outburst as tactfully as possible. "Perhaps you are not, the way we think of it in the city. But I guess there's a good many things you can't learn out of books, and I guess you could show the city boys a good many things they don't know, and never will know."

For the first time he looked her straight in the face. His dark eyes met her grey ones, and demanded truth. "Irene," he said, "do you mean that?"

"Sure I do," she answered. "College courses, and all that kind of thing; they're good stuff, all right, but they make some awful nice boys—real live boys, you know—into some awful dead ones. Either they get the highbrow, and become bores, or the swelled head, and become cads. Not all, you know, but lots of them. And then when they get out they have to start learning the real things of life—things that you have been learning here for ever so long. My father says about the best education is to learn to live within your income, pay your debts, and give the other fellow a chance to do the same. They don't all learn that in college. So when they get out they have to go and work for somebody who has learned it, like you have. Then there's the things you do, just like you were born to it, that they couldn't do to save their lives. Why, I've seen you smash six bottles at a stretch, you going full gallop, and whooping and shooting so we could hardly tell which was which. And ride—you could make more money riding for city people to look at than most of those learned fellows, with letters after their names like the tail of a kite, will ever see. But I wouldn't like you to make it that way. There's more useful things to do."

He was comforted by this speech, but he referred to his accomplishments modestly. "Ridin' an' shootin' ain't nothin'," he said.

"I'm not so sure," she answered. "Father says the day is coming when our country will want men who can shoot and ride more than it will want lawyers or professors."

"Well, when it does, it can call on me," he said, and there was the pride in his voice which comes to a boy who feels that in some way he can take a man's place in the world. "Them is two things I sure can do."

Years later she was to think of her remark and his answer, consecrated then in clean red blood.

They talked of many things that afternoon, and when at last the lengthening shadows warned them it was time to be on the way they rode long distances in silence. Both felt a sense which neither ventured to express, that they had travelled very close in the world of their hopes and sorrows and desires. Perhaps, as they rode along the foothill trail, they were still journeying together down the long, strange trails of the future; dim, visionary, exquisite trails; rough, hard, cruel trails hidden in the merciful mirage of their young hopefulness.

The shadows had deepened into darkness, and the infinite silence of the hills hung about them as they dropped from their saddles at the Elden door. A light shone from within, and Dr. Hardy, who was now able to move about with the aid of a home-made crutch, could be seen setting the table, while Mr. Elden stirred a composition on the stove. They chatted as they worked, and there was something of the joy of little children in their companionship. The young folks watched for a moment through the window, and in Dave's heart some long-forgotten emotion moved momentarily at the sight of the good fellowship prevailing in the old house. Irene, too, was thinking; glimpses of her own butlered home, and then this background of primal simplicity, where the old cow-man cooked the meals and the famous specialist set the plates on the bare board table, and then back of it all her mother, sedate and correct, and very much shocked over this mingling of the classes. But the girl's reverie was cut short by a sudden affectionate licking of her fingers, and glancing downward she found Brownie, adopted early in her visit at the Eldens', expressing its fondness in the only fashion at its command.

The calf had been an incident in her ranch experience. It was a late comer, quite unable to keep pace with the earlier fruits of the herd, and had the additional misfortune to be born of an ambitious mother, who had no thought of allowing her domestic duties to impair her social relationships with the matrons and males of her immediate set. She had no place for old-fashioned notions; she was determined to keep up with the herd and the calf might fare as best it could. So they rambled from day to day; she swaggering along with the set, but turning now and then to send an impatient moo toward the small brown body stuck on four long, ungainly legs,—legs which had an unfortunate habit of folding up, after the fashion of a jack knife, upon unforeseen occasions, and precipitating the owner in a huddled mass on the ground. At rare times, when heaven must have stooped close about the herd, the mother instinct would assert itself, and the cow would return to her offspring, licking it lavishly and encouraging it with mooings of deep affection, but such periods of bliss were of short duration. The lure of "the life" was too great for her; she felt herself born for more important roles than mere motherhood, and she would presently rush away to her favourite circle, leaving her begotten to such fates as might befall.

It was on such an occasion, when left far behind, that one of the ungainly legs found its way into a badger hole. The collapse was harder and more complete than usual, and the little sufferer would have died there had he not been found by Dave and Irene in the course of their rides. Dave, after a moment's examination, drew his revolver, but Irene pled for the life of the unfortunate.

"Oh, don't kill it, Dave," she cried. "You couldn't kill it! Let's get the wagon and take it home. It'll get all right, won't it?"

"Never be worth a——," said Dave, checking his vocabulary in the nick of time. "Once they begin to give trouble you might's well knock 'em on the head."

"But it's cruel," she protested. "Just to kill it because it's hurt."

"I don't know about the cruel," he answered. "You see, they're all raised, every one of 'em, to be killed, anyway. Jus' like people, I guess. Sooner or later. But if your heart's set on this little crittur, we'll save it's long as we can."

So the calf was taken home and became Irene's special care. The mother was captured and tied up in the corral, and the calf, although lame, began to thrive and wax strong. It would gallop in its ungainly way about the yard, in its exuberation of youthful innocence, while the mother pined for the latest scandal from the great fields over the hills.

"Brownie, we'll call it," said Irene, "on account of its colour."

"All right," said Dave, "on account of your sweater. That'll sort o' show the connection."

So this night she rubbed its nose, and scratched its forehead, and then reproved its affection, which had a habit of running to extremes. And the mother cow mooed from the corral, and Brownie forgot his benefactress and ambled away at the call of the blood.

"Well, you youngsters must have this country pretty well explored," said Dr. Hardy, as they entered the house. "Where was it today: the prairies, the foothills, or the real fellows behind?"

"The canyon, up the river," said Irene, drawing off her sweater. "What's the eats? Gee, I'm hungry. Getting pretty supple, Daddykins, aren't you?"

"Yes, an' I'm sorry for it, Miss," said the old rancher. "Not wishin' him any harm, or you neither. We was jus' talkin' it over, an' your father thinks he's spry enough for the road again. Ain't ever goin' to be like it use to be after he's gone, an' you."

So the afternoon's conversations in the canyon and the cabin had been on the same theme, although prompted by very different emotions. Yet the girl wondered whether the loneliness in the old man's heart, which cried out to his own sex, might not bear some relationship to a strange, new sense she herself was experiencing; a sense which reminded her that she was incomplete—and alone. And it called across the barrier of sex for completion.

"We'll be sorry to go," said the doctor. "That's what I've been saying all day, and thinking, too. If misfortunes can be lucky, ours was one of that kind. I don't know when I've enjoyed a holiday so much. What do you say, girl?" he asked, as he rested an arm on her round, firm shoulder and looked with fatherly fondness into the fine brown of her face.

"I've never known anything like it," she answered. "It's wonderful. It's life." Then with a sudden little scream she exclaimed, "Oh, Daddy, why can't you sell your practice and buy a ranch? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

"Your mother might not see it that way," he replied, and her eyes fell. Yes, that was the obstacle. She would have to go back to the city, and talk by rule, and dress by rule, and behave by rule, and be correct. She wondered how often her father had turned from the path of the true adventure because her mother "might not see it that way."

"It's been a good time," the doctor continued, when they had commenced supper, "but I've already overstayed my holiday. Well, I had good excuse. I feel that I can travel now, and my leg will be pretty strong by the time I am back East. If Dave will oblige us by going to town to-morrow and bringing back someone who can drive a car we will be able to start the following morning. I will just take the car to town and either sell it there or ship it."

The following morning found Dave early on the trail, leading a saddled horse by his side. The hours were leaden for the girl all that day, and looking into the future she saw the spectre of her life shadowed down the years by an unutterable loneliness. How could she ever drop it all—all this wild freedom, this boundless health, this great outdoors, this life, life, how could she drop it all and go back into the little circle where convention fenced out the tiniest alien streamlet, although the circle itself might lie deep in mire? And how would she give up this boy who had grown so imperceptibly but so intimately into the very soul of her being; give him up with all his strength, and virility, and—yes, and coarseness, if you will—but sincerity too; an essential man, as God made him, in exchange for a machine-made counterfeit with the stamp of Society? Deeply did she ponder these questions, and as the day wore on she found herself possessed of a steadily growing determination that she would not follow the beaten trail, let the by-paths lead where they might.

Darkness, save for a white moon, had settled over the foothills when the boy returned with another young man. The stranger ate a ravenous supper, but was not too occupied to assay conversation with Irene. Indeed, from their meeting at the doorway his eyes scarcely left her. He chose to call her cook.

"Swell pancakes, cook," was his opening remark. "Can you find another for yours truly?"

She refilled his plate without answer.

"Used to know a girl mighty like you," he went on. "Waitress in the Royal Edward. Gee, but she was swell! A pippin! Class! Say, she had 'em all guessing. Had me guessing myself for awhile. But just for awhile." He voiced these remarks with an air of intense self-approval more offensive than the words.

Irene felt the colour rise about her neck and cheeks and run like an over-flowing stream into her ears and about her hair. It was evident that, for a second time, Dave had chosen to say nothing to strangers about her presence at the ranch. But that was not what brought the colour. She was addressed as a menial, as a hired helper in the Elden household! Her own honesty told her that even that was not what brought the colour. It was not even the man's insolent familiarity; it was his assumption that his familiarity would not be resented. Her father and Mr. Elden were in Dave's room; Dave had stopped eating and she saw the veins rising in his clenched fists. But the challenge was to her, and she would accept it; she felt no need of his protection.

"Fill your stomach," she said, passing more pancakes; "your head is hopeless."

He attempted a laugh, but the meal was finished in silence. The stranger lit a cigarette, and Irene went to the door with Dave. An over-lace of silver moonlight draped the familiar objects near at hand and faded into the dark, vague lingerie of night where the spruce trees cut their black wedge along the valley.

"Come for a walk," he whispered. "The horses are tired, so let's walk. . . . It's our last chance."

She ran for her sweater and rejoined him in a moment. They walked in silence down a path through the fragrant trees, but Dave turned from time to time to catch a glimpse of her face, white and fine as ivory in the soft light. He had much to say; he felt that the ages could not utter all he had to say to-night, but he was tongue-tied under the spell of her beauty.

"You squelched him, all right," he broke out at length.

"Just in time, too, I think," she replied. "I was watching your hands."

He smiled a quiet but very confident smile. "Reenie," he said, "that fellow makes me sick. All the way out he talked about girls. If it hadn't been that I was makin' the trip for your father I'd 'a' licked him on the road, sure. He's a city chap, an' wears a white collar, but he ain't fit to speak your name. Another minute an' I'd 'a' had 'im by the neck." He seized a spruce limb that stuck across their path. It was the size of a stout stick but he snapped it with a turn of his wrist. It was very tough; it oozed sticky stuff where he broke it. "His neck," he said, between his teeth. "Jus' like that."

They reached an open space. Something black—or was it red?—lay on the ground. Dave bent over it a moment, then looked up to her white, clear face, whiter and clearer than ever since witnessing the strength of his hate.

"It's Brownie," he said, as calmly as he could. "Half et up. Wolves, I guess."

He saw her eyes grow slowly larger in the moonlight. Without a word she sank to her knees. He saw her fingers about her head, burrowing in her hair. Then she looked up, over the black trees, to the sky with its white moon and its few great stars.

"The poor, poor thing," she breathed. "The poor, innocent thing. Why did it have to die?"

"It's always the innocent things 'at suffers," he answered.

"Always the innocent things," she repeated mechanically. "Always—"

She sprang to her feet and faced him. "Then what about the justice of God?" she demanded.

"I don' know nothin' about the justice of God," he answered, bitterly. "All I know is the crittur 't can't run gets caught."

There was a long pause. "It doesn't seem right," she said at length.

"It ain't right," he agreed. "But I guess it's life. I see it here on the prairies with every living thing. Everything is a victim, some way or other. Even the wolves 'at tore this little beast 'll go down to some rancher's rifle, maybe, although they were only doing what nature said . . . I guess it's the same way in the cities; the innocent bein' hunted, an' the innocenter they are the easier they're caught. An' then the wolves beggin' off, an' sayin' it was only nature."

The girl had no answer. No one had ever talked to her like this. What did this country boy know? And yet it was plain he did know. He had lived among the fundamentals.

"I guess I was like that, some," he went on. "I've been caught. I guess a baby ain't responsible for anything, is it? I didn't pick my father or my mother, did I? But I got to bear it."

There was something near a break in his voice on the last words. She felt she must speak.

"I think your father is a wonderful old man," she said, "and your mother must have been wonderful, too. You should be proud of them both."

"Reenie, do you mean that?" he demanded. His eyes were looking straight into hers. Once before he had faced her with that question, and she had not forgotten.

"Absolutely," she answered. "Absolutely, I mean it."

"Then I'm goin' to say some more things to you," he went on, rapidly. "Things 'at I didn't know whether to say or not, but now they've got to be said, whatever happens. Reenie, I haven't ever been to school, or learned lots of things I should 'a' learned, but I ain't a fool, neither. I know 'at when you're home you live thousands of miles from me, but I know 'at in your mind you live further away than that. I know it's like all the prairies an' all the oceans were between us. But I know, too, that people cross prairies an' oceans, an' I'm wantin' to cross. I know it takes time, an' I'll be a slow traveller, but I'm a mighty persistent crittur when I start out. I didn't learn to break all those bottles in a day. Well, I can learn other things, too, an' I will, if only it will take me across. I'm goin' to leave this old ranch, someway, jus' as soon as it can be arranged. I'm goin' to town, an' work. I'm strong; I can get pretty good wages. I've been thinkin' it all over, and was askin' some questions in town to-day. I can work days and go to school nights. An' I'll do it if—if it'll get me across. You know what I mean. I ain't askin' no pledges, Reenie, but what's the chance? I know I don't talk right, an' I don't eat right—you tried not to notice, but you couldn't help—but Reenie, I think right, an' I guess with a girl like you that counts more than eatin' and talkin'."

She had thought she could say yes or no to any question he could ask, but as he poured forth these plain passionate words she found herself enveloped in a flame that found no expression in speech. She had no words. She was glad when he went on.

"I know I'm only a boy, an' you're only a girl. That's why I don' ask no pledge. I leave you free, only I want you to stay free until I have my chance. Will you promise that?"

She tried to pull herself together. "You know I've had a good time with you, Dave," she said, "and I've gone with you everywhere, like I would not have gone with any other boy I ever knew, and I've talked and let you talk about things I never talked about before, and I believe you're true and clean, and—and—"

"Yes," he said. "What's your answer?"

"I know you're true and clean," she repeated. "Come to me—like that—when I'm a woman and you're a man, and then—then we'll know."

He was tall and straight, and his shadow fell across her face, as though even the moon must not see. "Reenie," he said, "kiss me."

For one moment she thought of her mother. She knew she stood at the parting of the ways; that all life for her was being moulded in that moment. Then she put both her arms about his neck and drew his lips to hers.


Dave's opportunity came sooner than he expected. After the departure of the Hardys things at the old ranch were as both father and son had predicted, very different. They found themselves on a sort of good behaviour; a behaviour which, unhappily excited in each other grave suspicions as to purpose. Between these two men rude courtesies or considerations of any kind had been so long forgotten that attempts to reintroduce them resulted in a sort of estrangement more dangerous than the old open hostility. The tension steadily increased, and both looked forward to the moment when something must give way.

For several weeks the old man remained entirely sober, but the call of the appetite in him grew more and more insistent as the days went by, and at last came the morning when Dave awoke to find him gone. He needed no second guess; the craving had become irresistible and his father had ridden to town for the means to satisfy it. The passing days did not bring his return, but this occasioned no anxiety to Dave. In the course of a carouse his father frequently remained away for weeks at a stretch, and at such times it was Dave's custom to visit the boys on a ranch a dozen miles over the foothills to the southward. These boys had a sister, and what was more natural than that Dave should drown his loneliness in such company?

But this time he did not ride southward over the hills. He moped around the ranch buildings, sat moodily by the little stream, casting pebbles in the water, or rode over the old trails on which she had so often been his companion. The season was bright with all the glory of the foothill September; the silver dome of heaven, cloudless morning and noon, ripened with the dying day into seas of gold on which floated cloud-islands of purple and amethyst, and through the immeasurable silence of the night moon and stars bathed the deep valleys in celestial effulgence. But in the heart of the boy was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, but only the black gulfs of loneliness from which his light had gone out.

Then the old man's horse came home. Dave saw it coming up the trail, not running wildly, but with nervous gallop and many sidelong turnings of the head. As the boy watched he found a strange emptiness possess him; his body seemed a phantom on which his head hung over-heavy. He spoke to the horse, which pulled up, snorting, before him; noted the wet neck and flanks, and at last the broken stirrup. Then, slowly and methodically, and still with that strange sensation of emptiness, he saddled his own horse and set out on the search. . . .

After the last rites had been paid to the old rancher Dave set about at once to wind up his affairs, and it was not until then that he discovered how deeply his father had been involved. The selling of the cattle and the various effects realized only enough to discharge the liabilities, and when this had been done Dave found himself with a considerable area of unmarketable land, a considerable bundle of paid bills, and his horse, saddle and revolver. He rode his horse to town, carrying a few articles of wear with him. It was only after a stiff fight he could bring himself to part with his one companion. The last miles into town were ridden very slowly, with the boy frequently leaning forward and stroking the horse's neck and ears.

"Tough doin's, ol' Slop-eye," he would say. "Tough doin's. But it's got to be done. I can't keep you in town; 't ain't like out on the old ranch. An' I got a bigger job now than ever you an' me stood in on, an' we've stood in on some big ones, too, ain't we? But that's gone an' done; that old life's all busted, all of a sudden, like a bottle. Busted an' run out. I got a big job on now, an' you can't take no part. You jus' got to get out. You're done, see?" He sold horse and saddle for sixty dollars and took a room at a cheap hotel until he should find work and still cheaper lodgings.

In the evening he walked through the streets of the little cow-town. It was not altogether new to him; he had frequently visited it for business or pleasure, but he had never felt the sense of strangeness which oppressed him this night. In the past he had always been in the town as a visitor; his roots were still in the ranch; he could afford to notice the ways of the town, and smile to himself a whimsical smile and go on. But now he was throwing in his lot with the town; he was going to be one of it, and it stretched no arms of welcome to him. It snubbed him with its indifference. . . . He became aware that he was very lonely. He became aware that the gathering twilight in the great hills had never seemed so vague and empty as the dusk of this strange town. He realized that he had but one friend in the world; but one, and of her he knew not so much as her address. . . . He began to wonder whether he really had a friend at all; whether the girl would not discard him when he was of no further use just as he had discarded his faithful old horse. Tears of loneliness and remorse gathered in his eyes, and a mist not of the twilight blurred the street lamps now glimmering from their poles. He felt that he had treated the horse very shabbily indeed. He wanted old Slop-eye back again. He suddenly wanted him with a terrific longing; wanted him more than anything else in the world. For a moment he forgot the girl, and all his homesickness centred about the beast which had been so long his companion and servant and friend.

"I'll buy him back in the mornin', I will, sure as hell," he said in a sudden gust of emotion. "We got to stick together. I didn't play fair with him, but I'll buy him back. Perhaps I can get a job for him, too, pullin' a light wagon, or somethin'."

The resolution to "play fair" with Slop-eye gradually restored his cheerfulness, and he walked slowly back to the hotel, looking in at many window displays as he went. Half shyly he paused before a window of women's wear; fine, filmy things, soft and elusive, and, he supposed, very expensive. He wondered if Reenie bought clothes like that to wear in her city home. And then he began to look for a brown sweater, and to move from window to window. And presently he found himself at his hotel.

The men's sitting room now presented a much more animated picture than when he had registered earlier in the evening. It was filled with ranchers, cowboys, and cattlemen of all degree; breeders, buyers, traders, owners and wage-earners, with a sprinkling of townspeople and others not directly engaged in some phase of the cattle business. The room was strong with smoke and language and expectoration and goodfellowship, to which the maudlin carousal of the line-up at the bar furnished appropriate accompaniment. Through the smoke he could see another room farther back, in which were a number of pool tables; loud voices and loud laughter and occasional awe-inspiring rips of profanity betokened deep interest in the game, and he allowed himself to drift in that direction. Soon he was in a group watching a gaudily dressed individual doing a sort of sleight-of-hand trick with three cards on a table.

"Smooth guy that," said some one at his side. The remark was evidently intended for Dave, and he turned toward the speaker. He was a man somewhat smaller than Dave; two or three years older; well dressed in town clothes; with a rather puffy face and a gold filled tooth from which a corner had been broken as though to accommodate the cigarette which hung there. He blew a slow double stream of smoke from his nostrils and repeated, "Smooth guy that."

"Yes," said Dave. Then, as it was apparent the stranger was inclined to be friendly, he continued, "What's the idea?"

The stranger nudged him gently. "Come out of the bunch," he said, in a low voice. When they had moved a little apart he went on, in a confidential tone: "He has a little trick with three cards that brings him in the easy coin. He's smooth as grease, but the thing's simple. Oh, it's awful simple. It's out of date with the circuses in the States—that was where I got wise to it—but it seems to get 'em here. Now you watch him for a minute," and they watched through an opening in the crowd about his table. The player held three cards; two red ones and a black. He passed them about rapidly over the table, occasionally turning his hand sideways so that the on-lookers could see the position of the cards. Then he suddenly threw them, face down, on the table, each card by itself.

"The trick is to locate the black card," Dave's companion explained. "It's easy enough if you just keep your eye on the card, but the trouble with these rubes is they name the card and then start to get out their money, and while they're fumbling for it he makes a change so quick they never see it. There's just one way to beat him. Get up close, but don't say you're going to play; just pretend you're getting interested. Then when you're dead sure of a card, crack your fist down on it. Glue yourself right to it, and get out your money with the other hand. When he sees you do that he'll try to bluff you; say you ain't in on it, but you just tell him that don't go, this is an open game and he's got to come through, and the crowd'll back you up. I stuck him one—a whole hundred first crack—and then he barred me. Watch him."

Dave watched. Saw the black card go down at one corner of the board; saw a bystander fumbling for a five dollar bill; saw the bill laid on the card; saw it turned up—and it was red.

"That is smooth," he said. "I'd 'a' sworn that was the black card."

"So it was—when you saw it," his companion explained. "But you were just like the sucker that played him. You couldn't help glancing at the jay getting out his money, and it was in that instant the trick was done. He's too quick for the eye, but that's how he does it."

Dave became interested. He saw two or three others lose fives and tens. Then his companion pinched his arm. "Watch that new guy," he whispered. "Watch him. He's wise."

A new player had approached. He stood near the table for some minutes, apparently looking on casually; then his left fist came down on one of the cards. "A hundred on this one," he said, and began thumbing out a roll with his other hand.

"You ain't playin'," said the dealer. "You ain't in on this."

"Ain't I? What do you say, fellows?" turning to the crowd. "Am I in or not?"

"Sure you're in," they exclaimed. "Sure you're in," repeated a big fellow, lounging forward. "If this guy ain't in we clean you out, see?"

"It's on me," said the dealer, with an ugly smile. "Well, if I must pay, I pay. Turn 'er up."

It was black. The dealer paid out a hundred dollars to the new player, who quickly disappeared in the crowd.

Dave had made his decision. It was plain his companion's tip was straight. There was just one way to beat this game, but it was simple enough when you knew how. He sidled close to the table, making great pretense of indifference, but watching the cards closely with his keen black eyes. The dealer showed his hand, made a few quick passes, and the black card flew out to the right. This was Dave's chance. He pounced on it with his left hand, while his other plunged into his pocket.

"Sixty dollars on this one," he cried, and there was the triumphant note in his voice of the man who knows he has beaten the other at his own game.

"You ain't playin'," said the dealer. "You ain't in on this."

"That don't go," said Dave, very quietly. "You're playin' a public game here, an' I choose to play with you, this once. Sixty dollars on this card." He was fumbling his money on the table.

"You ain't playin'," repeated the dealer. "You're a butt-in. You ain't in this game at all."

"Sure he's in," said the crowd.

"Sure he's in," repeated the big fellow who had interfered before. "He's a stranger here, but you play with him or you don't play no more in this joint, see?"

"That's hittin' me twice in the same spot, an' hittin' me hard," whined the dealer, "but you got it on me. Turn 'er up."

The card was red.

Dave looked at it stupidly. It was a moment or two before he realized that his money was gone. Then, regardless of those about, he rushed through the crowd, flinging by-standers right and left, and plunged into the night.

He walked down a street until it lost itself on the prairie; then he followed a prairie trail far into the country. The air was cold and a few drops of rain were flying in it, but he was unconscious of the weather. He was in a rage, through and through. More than once his hand went to his revolver, and he half turned on his heel to retrace his steps, but his better judgment led him on to fight it out with himself. Slop-eye was now a dream, a memory, gone—gone. Everything was gone; only his revolver and a few cents remained. He gripped the revolver again. With that he was supreme. No man in all that town of men, schooled in the ways of the West, was more than his equal while that grip lay in his palm. At the point of that muzzle he could demand his money back—and get it.

Then he laughed. Hollow and empty it sounded in the night air, but it was a laugh, and it saved his spirit. "Why, you fool," he chuckled. "You came to town for to learn somethin', didn't you? Well, you're learnin'. Sixty dollars a throw. Education comes high, don't it? But you shouldn't kick. He didn't coax you in, an' gave you every chance to back away. You butted in and got stung. Perhaps you've learned somethin' worth sixty dollars."

With these more philosophical thoughts he turned townward again, and as he tramped along his light heartedness re-asserted itself. His sense of fairness made him feel that he had no grievance against the card sharper, and in his innocence of the ways of the game it never occurred to him that the friendly stranger who had showed him how to play it, and the big fellow who insisted on his being "in", and the other player who had won a hundred dollars a few minutes before, were all partners with the sharper and probably at this moment were dividing his sixty dollars—the price of old Slop-eye—between them.

Early next morning he was awake and astir. The recollection of his loss sent a sudden pang through his morning spirits, but he tried to close his mind to it. "No use worryin' over that," he said, jingling the few coins that now represented his wealth. "That's over and gone. I traded sixty dollars for my first lesson. Maybe it was a bad trade, but anyway, I ain't goin' to squeal." He turned that thought over in his mind. It suddenly occurred to him that it expressed a principle which he might very well weave into his new life. "If I can jus' get that idea, an' live up to it," he said, "never to squeal, no matter what hits me, nor how, I guess it's worth sixty dollars." He whistled as he finished dressing, ate his breakfast cheerfully, and set out in search of employment.


Almost the first person he met was the stranger who had schooled him in the gambling game the night before. He greeted Dave cordially; his voice had a soft, sedulous, almost feminine quality which Dave had not noticed in their whispered conversation in the pool room. There was something attractive about his personality; something which invited friendship and even confidence, and yet beneath these emotions Dave felt a sense of distrust, as though part of his nature rebelled against the acquaintanceship.

"That was the rottenest luck you had last night," the stranger was saying. "I never saw the beat of it. I knew you were wrong the moment you had your hand down, but I couldn't butt in then. I was hoping you'd stay and raise him next time; you might have got your money back that way."

"Oh, I don't mind the money," said Dave, cheerfully. "I don't want it back. In fact, I figure it was pretty well spent."

"Lots more where it came from, eh?" laughed the other. "You're from the ranches, I see, and I suppose the price of a steer or two doesn't worry you a hair's worth."

"From is right," Dave replied. "I'm from them, an' I'm not goin' back. As for money—well, I spent my last nickle for breakfast, so I've got to line up a job before noon."

The stranger extended his hand. "Shake," he said. "I like you. You're no squealer, anyway. My name is Conward. Yours?"

Dave told his name, and shook hands. Conward offered his cigarette box, and the two smoked for a few moments in silence.

"What kind of a job do you want?" Conward asked at length.

"Any kind that pays a wage," said Dave. "If I don't like it I'll chuck it as soon as I can afford t' be partic'lar, but just now I've got to get a grub-stake."

"I know the fellow that runs an employment agency down here," Conward answered. "Let's go down. Perhaps I can put you in right."

Conward spoke to the manager of the employment agency and introduced Dave.

"Nothing very choice on tap to-day," said the employment man. "You can handle horses, I suppose?"

"I guess I can," said Dave. "Some."

"I can place you delivering coal. Thirty dollars a month, and you board with the boss."

"I'll take it," said Dave.

The boss proved to be one Thomas Metford. He owned half a dozen teams and was engaged in the cartage business, specializing on coal. He was a man of big frame, big head, and a vocabulary appropriate to the purposes to which he applied it. Among his other possessions were a wife, numerous children, and a house and barn, in which he boarded his beasts of burden, including in the term his horses, his men, and his wife, in the order of their valuation. The children were a by-product, valueless until such time as they also would be able to work.

Dave's duties were simple enough. He had to drive a wagon to a coal yard, where a very superior young man, with a collar, would express surprise that he had been so long gone, and tell him to back in under chute number so-and-so. It appeared to be always a matter of great distress to this young man that Dave did not know which chute to back under until he was told. Having backed into position, a door was opened. There was a fiction that the coal in the bin should then run into the wagon box, but, as Dave at once discovered, this was merely a fiction. Aside from a few accommodating lumps near the door the coal had to be shovelled. When the box was judged to be full the wagon was driven on to the scales. If the load were too heavy some of it had to be thrown off, while the young man with the collar passed remarks appropriate to the occasion. If the load were too light less distress was experienced. Then Dave had to drive to an address that was given him, shovel the coal down a chute located in the most inaccessible position the premises afforded, and return to the coal yard, where the young man with the collar would facetiously inquire whether Mrs. Blank had invited him in to afternoon tea, or if he had been waiting for a change in the weather.

Conditions in the boarding-house had the value of distracting Dave's attention from the unpleasantness of his work. Mrs. Metford, handicapped by her numerous offspring, embittered by the regular recurrence of her contributions to the State, and disheartened by drudgery and overwork, had long ago ceased to place any store on personal appearance or even cleanliness. As Dave watched her slovenly shuffle to and from the kitchen, preceded and pursued by young Metfords in all degrees of childish innocence, his mind flew back to dim recollections of his own mother, and the quiet, noiseless order of their home. Even in the latter days, when he and his father had been anything but model housekeepers, they had never known such squalor as this.

Metford's attitude toward his wife fluctuated from course humour to brutality, but there was left in the woman no spark of spirit to resist. With neither tongue nor eye did she make any response, and her shufflings back and forth were neither hastened nor delayed by the pleasure of her lord. Her bearing was that of one who has suffered until the senses are numb, who has drunk the last dregs of bitterness, for whom no possible change of condition can be worse. Her indifference was tragic.

The sleeping accommodations had the virtue of simplicity. The Metford tribe was housed in a lean-to which supported one wall of the kitchen, and the eight boarders slept upstairs over the main part of the house. The room was not large, but it had four corners, and in each corner stood a cheap iron bed with baggy springs and musty mattress. The ceiling, none too high at any part, sloped at the walls almost to the edges of the beds. One table and wash basin had to serve for the eight lodgers; those who were impatient for their turn might omit their ablutions altogether or perform them in the horse-trough at the barn.

All Metford's employees, with the exception of Dave, were foreigners, more or less inconversant with the English language. Somewhat to his surprise, they maintained an attitude of superiority toward him, carrying on their conversations in a strange tongue, and allowing him little part in their common life. Dave's spirit, which had always been accustomed to receive and be received on a basis of absolute equality, rebelled violently against the intangible wall of exclusion which his fellow workers built about themselves, and as they had shown no desire for his company, he retaliated by showing still less for theirs, with the result that he found himself very much alone and apart from the life of his new surroundings.

His work and supper were over by seven o'clock each evening, and now was the opportunity for him to begin the schooling for which he had left the ranch. But he developed a sudden disinclination to make the start; he was tired in the evening, and he found it much more to his liking to stroll down town, smoke cigarettes on the street corners, or engage in an occasional game of pool. In this way the weeks went by, and when his month with Metford was up he had neglected to find another position, so he continued where he was. He was being gradually and unconsciously submerged in an inertia which, however much it might hate its present surroundings, had not the spirit to seek a more favourable environment.

So the fall and winter drifted along; Dave had made few acquaintances and no friends, if we except Conward, whom he frequently met in the pool rooms, and for whom he had developed a sort of attachment. His first underlying sense of distrust had been lulled by closer acquaintanceship; Conward's mild manner and quiet, seductive voice invited friendship, and it became a customary thing for the two to play for small stakes, which Dave won as often as he lost.

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