THE DUKE OF CHIMNEY BUTTE
G. W. OGDEN
AUTHOR OF THE LAND OF LAST CHANCE
FRONTISPIECE BY P. V. E. IVORY
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1920
Published April, 1920
Copyrighted in Great Britain
I The All-in-One 1
II Whetstone, the Outlaw 18
III An Empty Saddle 39
IV "And Speak in Passing" 47
V Feet upon the Road 69
VI Allurements of Glendora 81
VII The Homeliest Man 95
VIII The House on the Mesa 108
IX A Knight-Errant 114
X Guests of the Boss Lady 130
XI Alarms and Excursions 146
XII The Fury of Doves 166
XIII "No Honor in Her Blood" 185
XIV Notice Is Served 198
XV Wolves of the Range 218
XVI Whetstone Comes Home 238
XVII How Thick Is Blood? 255
XVIII The Rivalry of Cooks 270
XIX The Sentinel 276
XX Business, and More 289
XXI A Test of Loyalty 302
XXII The Will-o'-the-Wisp 320
XXIII Unmasked 329
XXIV Use for an Old Paper 333
XXV "When She Wakes Up" 345
XXVI Oysters and Ambitions 361
XXVII Emoluments and Rewards 374
The Duke of Chimney Butte
Down through the Bad Lands the Little Missouri comes in long windings, white, from a distance, as a frozen river between the ash-gray hills. At its margin there are willows; on the small forelands, which flood in June when the mountain waters are released, cottonwoods grow, leaning toward the southwest like captives straining in their bonds, yearning in their way for the sun and winds of kinder latitudes.
Rain comes to that land but seldom in the summer days; in winter the wind sweeps the snow into rocky canons; buttes, with tops leveled by the drift of the old, earth-making days, break the weary repetition of hill beyond hill.
But to people who dwell in a land a long time and go about the business of getting a living out of what it has to offer, its wonders are no longer notable, its hardships no longer peculiar. So it was with the people who lived in the Bad Lands at the time that we come among them on the vehicle of this tale. To them it was only an ordinary country of toil and disappointment, or of opportunity and profit, according to their station and success.
To Jeremiah Lambert it seemed the land of hopelessness, the last boundary of utter defeat as he labored over the uneven road at the end of a blistering summer day, trundling his bicycle at his side. There was a suit-case strapped to the handlebar of the bicycle, and in that receptacle were the wares which this guileless peddler had come into that land to sell. He had set out from Omaha full of enthusiasm and youthful vigor, incited to the utmost degree of vending fervor by the representations of the general agent for the little instrument which had been the stepping-stone to greater things for many an ambitious young man.
According to the agent, Lambert reflected, as he pushed his punctured, lop-wheeled, disordered, and dejected bicycle along; there had been none of the ambitious business climbers at hand to add his testimony to the general agent's word.
Anyway, he had taken the agency, and the agent had taken his essential twenty-two dollars and turned over to him one hundred of those notable ladders to future greatness and affluence. Lambert had them there in his imitation-leather suit-case—from which the rain had taken the last deceptive gloss—minus seven which he had sold in the course of fifteen days.
In those fifteen days Lambert had traveled five hundred miles, by the power of his own sturdy legs, by the grace of his bicycle, which had held up until this day without protest over the long, sandy, rocky, dismal roads, and he had lived on less than a gopher, day taken by day.
Housekeepers were not pining for the combination potato-parer, apple-corer, can-opener, tack-puller, known as the "All-in-One" in any reasonable proportion.
It did not go. Indisputably it was a good thing, and well built, and finished like two dollars' worth of cutlery. The selling price, retail, was one dollar, and it looked to an unsophisticated young graduate of an agricultural college to be a better opening toward independence and the foundation of a farm than a job in the hay fields. A man must make his start somewhere, and the farther away from competition the better his chance.
This country to which the general agent had sent him was becoming more and more sparsely settled. The chances were stretching out against him with every mile. The farther into that country he should go the smaller would become the need for that marvelous labor-saving invention.
Lambert had passed the last house before noon, when his sixty-five-pound bicycle had suffered a punctured tire, and there had bargained with a Scotch woman at the greasy kitchen door with the smell of curing sheepskins in it for his dinner. It took a good while to convince the woman that the All-in-One was worth it, but she yielded out of pity for his hungry state. From that house he estimated that he had made fifteen miles before the tire gave out; since then he had added ten or twelve more to the score. Nothing that looked like a house was in sight, and it was coming on dusk.
He labored on, bent in spirit, sore of foot. From the rise of a hill, when it had fallen so dark that he was in doubt of the road, he heard a voice singing. And this was the manner of the song:
Oh, I bet my money on a bob-tailed hoss, An' a hoo-dah, an' a hoo-dah; I bet my money on a bob-tailed hoss, An' a hoo-dah bet on the bay.
The singer was a man, his voice an aggravated tenor with a shake to it like an accordion, and he sang that stanza over and over as Lambert leaned on his bicycle and listened.
Lambert went down the hill. Presently the shape of trees began to form out of the valley. Behind that barrier the man was doing his singing, his voice now rising clear, now falling to distance as if he passed to and from, in and out of a door, or behind some object which broke the flow of sound. A whiff of coffee, presently, and the noise of the man breaking dry sticks, as with his foot, jarring his voice to a deeper tremolo. Now the light, with the legs of the man in it, showing a cow-camp, the chuck wagon in the foreground, the hope of hospitality big in its magnified proportions.
Beyond the fire where the singing cook worked, men were unsaddling their horses and turning them into the corral. Lambert trundled his bicycle into the firelight, hailing the cook with a cheerful word.
The cook had a tin plate in his hands, which he was wiping on a flour sack. At sight of this singular combination of man and wheels he leaned forward in astonishment, his song bitten off between two words, the tin plate before his chest, the drying operations suspended. Amazement was on him, if not fright. Lambert put his hand into his hip-pocket and drew forth a shining All-in-One, which he always had ready there to produce as he approached a door.
He stood there with it in his hand, the firelight over him, smiling in his most ingratiating fashion. That had been one of the strong texts of the general agent. Always meet them with a smile, he said, and leave them with a smile, no matter whether they deserved it or not. It proved a man's unfaltering confidence in himself and the article which he presented to the world.
Lambert was beginning to doubt even this paragraph of his general instructions. He had been smiling until he believed his eye-teeth were wearing thin from exposure, but it seemed the one thing that had a grain in it among all the buncombe and bluff. And he stood there smiling at the camp cook, who seemed to be afraid of him, the tin plate held before his gizzard like a shield.
There was nothing about Lambert's appearance to scare anybody, and least of all a bow-legged man beside a fire in the open air of the Bad Lands, where things are not just as they are in any other part of this world at all. His manner was rather boyish and diffident, and wholly apologetic, and the All-in-One glistened in his hand like a razor, or a revolver, or anything terrible and destructive that a startled camp cook might make it out to be.
A rather long-legged young man, in canvas puttees, a buoyant and irrepressible light in his face which the fatigues and disappointments of the long road had not dimmed; a light-haired man, with his hat pushed back from his forehead, and a speckled shirt on him, and trousers rather tight—that was what the camp cook saw, standing exactly as he had turned and posed at Lambert's first word.
Lambert drew a step nearer, and began negotiations for supper on the basis of an even exchange.
"Oh, agent, are you?" said the cook, letting out a breath of relief.
"I don't know how to tell 'em apart. Well, put it away, son, put it away, whatever it is. No hungry man don't have to dig up his money to eat in this camp."
This was the kindest reception that Lambert had received since taking to the road to found his fortunes on the All-in-One. He was quick with his expression of appreciation, which the cook ignored while he went about the business of lighting two lanterns which he hung on the wagon end.
Men came stringing into the light from the noise of unsaddling at the corral with loud and jocund greetings to the cook, and respectful, even distant and reserved, "evenin's" for the stranger. All of them but the cook wore cartridge-belts and revolvers, which they unstrapped and hung about the wagon as they arrived. All of them, that is, but one black-haired, tall young man. He kept his weapon on, and sat down to eat with it close under his hand.
Nine or ten of them sat in at the meal, with a considerable clashing of cutlery on tin plates and cups. It was evident to Lambert that his presence exercised a restraint over their customary exchange of banter. In spite of the liberality of the cook, and the solicitation on part of his numerous hosts to "eat hearty," Lambert could not help the feeling that he was away off on the edge, and that his arrival had put a rein on the spirits of these men.
Mainly they were young men like himself, two or three of them only betrayed by gray in beards and hair; brown, sinewy, lean-jawed men, no dissipation showing in their eyes.
Lambert felt himself drawn to them by a sense of kinship. He never had been in a cow-camp before in his life, but there was something in the air of it, in the dignified ignoring of the evident hardships of such a life that told him he was among his kind.
The cook was a different type of man from the others, and seemed to have been pitched into the game like the last pawn of a desperate player. He was a short man, thick in the body, heavy in the shoulders, so bow-legged that he weaved from side to side like a sailor as he went swinging about his work. It seemed, indeed, that he must have taken to a horse very early in life, while his legs were yet plastic, for they had set to the curve of the animal's barrel like the bark on a tree.
His black hair was cut short, all except a forelock like a horse, leaving his big ears naked and unframed. These turned away from his head as if they had been frosted and wilted, and if ears ever stood as an index to generosity in this world the camp cook's at once pronounced him the most liberal man to be met between the mountains and the sea. His features were small, his mustache and eyebrows large, his nose sharp and thin, his eyes blue, and as bright and merry as a June day.
He wore a blue wool shirt, new and clean, with a bright scarlet necktie as big as a hand of tobacco; and a green velvet vest, a galloping horse on his heavy gold watch-chain, and great, loose, baggy corduroy trousers, like a pirate of the Spanish Main. These were folded into expensive, high-heeled, quilted-topped boots, and, in spite of his trade, there was not a spot of grease or flour on him anywhere to be seen.
Lambert noted the humorous glances which passed from eye to eye, and the sly winks that went round the circle of cross-legged men with tin plates between their knees as they looked now and then at his bicycle leaning close by against a tree. But the exactions of hospitality appeared to keep down both curiosity and comment during the meal. Nobody asked him where he came from, what his business was, or whither he was bound, until the last plate was pitched into the box, the last cup drained of its black, scalding coffee.
It was one of the elders who took it up then, after he had his pipe going and Lambert had rolled a cigarette from the proffered pouch.
"What kind of a horse is that you're ridin', son?" he inquired.
"Have a look at it," Lambert invited, knowing that the machine was new to most, if not all, of them. He led the way to the bicycle, they unlimbering from their squatting beside the wagon and following.
He took the case containing his unprofitable wares from the handlebars and turned the bicycle over to them, offering no explanations on its peculiarities or parts, speaking only when they asked him, in horse parlance, with humor that broadened as they put off their reserve. On invitation to show its gait he mounted it, after explaining that it had stepped on a nail and traveled lamely. He circled the fire and came back to them, offering it to anybody who might want to try his skill.
Hard as they were to shake out of the saddle, not a man of them, old or young, could mount the rubber-shod steed of the city streets. All of them gave it up after a tumultuous hour of hilarity but the bow-legged cook, whom they called Taterleg. He said he never had laid much claim to being a horseman, but if he couldn't ride a long-horned Texas steer that went on wheels he'd resign his job.
He took it out into the open, away from the immediate danger of a collision with a tree, and squared himself to break it in. He got it going at last, cheered by loud whoops of admiration and encouragement, and rode it straight into the fire. He scattered sticks and coals and bore a wabbling course ahead, his friends after him, shouting and waving hats. Somewhere in the dark beyond the lanterns he ran into a tree.
But he came back pushing the machine, his nose skinned, sweating and triumphant, offering to pay for any damage he had done. Lambert assured him there was no damage. They sat down to smoke again, all of them feeling better, the barrier against the stranger quite down, everything comfortable and serene.
Lambert told them, in reply to kindly, polite questioning from the elder of the bunch, a man designated by the name Siwash, how he was lately graduated from the Kansas Agricultural College at Manhattan, and how he had taken the road with a grip full of hardware to get enough ballast in his jeans to keep the winter wind from blowing him away.
"Yes, I thought that was a college hat you had on," said Siwash.
Lambert acknowledged its weakness.
"And that shirt looked to me from the first snort I got at it like a college shirt. I used to be where they was at one time."
Lambert explained that an aggie wasn't the same as a regular college fellow, such as they turn loose from the big factories in the East, where they thicken their tongues to the broad a and call it an education; nothing like that, at all. He went into the details of the great farms manned by the students, the bone-making, as well as the brain-making work of such an institution as the one whose shadows he had lately left.
"I ain't a-findin' any fault with them farmer colleges," Siwash said. "I worked for a man in Montanny that sent his boy off to one of 'em, and that feller come back and got to be state vet'nary. I ain't got nothing ag'in' a college hat, as far as that goes, neither, but I know 'em when I see 'em—I can spot 'em every time. Will you let us see them Do-it-Alls?"
Lambert produced one of the little implements, explained its points, and it passed from hand to hand, with comments which would have been worth gold to the general agent.
"It's a toothpick and a tater-peeler put together," said Siwash, when it came back to his hand. The young fellow with the black, sleek hair, who kept his gun on, reached for it, bent over it in the light, examining it with interest.
"You can trim your toenails with it and half-sole your boots," he said. "You can shave with it and saw wood, pull teeth and brand mavericks; you can open a bottle or a bank with it, and you can open the hired gal's eyes with it in the mornin'. It's good for the old and the young, for the crippled and the in-sane; it'll heat your house and hoe your garden, and put the children to bed at night. And it's made and sold and distributed by Mr.—Mr.—by the Duke——"
Here he bent over it a little closer, turning it in the light to see what was stamped in the metal beneath the words "The Duke," that being the name denoting excellence which the manufacturer had given the tool.
"By the Duke of—the Duke of—is them three links of saursage, Siwash?"
Siwash looked at the triangle under the name.
"No, that's Indian writin'; it means a mountain," he said.
"Sure, of course, I might 'a' knowed," the young man said with deep self-scorn. "That's a butte, that's old Chimney Butte, as plain as smoke. Made and sold and distributed in the Bad Lands by the Duke of Chimney Butte. Duke," said he solemnly, rising and offering his hand, "I'm proud to know you."
There was no laughter at this; it was not time to laugh yet. They sat looking at the young man, primed and ready for the big laugh, indeed, but holding it in for its moment. As gravely as the cowboy had risen, as solemnly as he held his countenance in mock seriousness, Lambert rose and shook hands with him.
"The pleasure is mostly mine," said he, not a flush of embarrassment or resentment in his face, not a quiver of the eyelid as he looked the other in the face, as if this were some high and mighty occasion, in truth.
"And you're all right, Duke, you're sure all right," the cowboy said, a note of admiration in his voice.
"I'd bet you money he's all right," Siwash said, and the others echoed it in nods and grins.
The cowboy sat down and rolled a cigarette, passed his tobacco across to Lambert, and they smoked. And no matter if his college hat had been only half as big as it was, or his shirt ring-streaked and spotted, they would have known the stranger for one of their kind, and accepted him as such.
WHETSTONE, THE OUTLAW
When Taterleg roused the camp before the east was light, Lambert noted that another man had ridden in. This was a wiry young fellow with a short nose and fiery face, against which his scant eyebrows and lashes were as white as chalk.
His presence in the camp seemed to put a restraint on the spirits of the others, some of whom greeted him by the name Jim, others ignoring him entirely. Among these latter was the black-haired man who had given Lambert his title and elevated him to the nobility of the Bad Lands. On the face of it there was a crow to be picked between them.
Jim was belted with a pistol and heeled with a pair of those long-roweled Mexican spurs, such as had gone out of fashion on the western range long before his day. He leaned on his elbow near the fire, his legs stretched out in a way that obliged Taterleg to walk round the spurred boots as he went between his cooking and the supplies in the wagon, the tailboard of which was his kitchen table.
If Taterleg resented this lordly obstruction, he did not discover it by word or feature. He went on humming a tune without words as he worked, handing out biscuits and ham to the hungry crew. Jim had eaten his breakfast already, and was smoking a cigarette at his ease. Now and then he addressed somebody in obscene jocularity.
Lambert saw that Jim turned his eyes on him now and then with sneering contempt, but said nothing. When the men had made a hasty end of their breakfast three of them started to the corral. The young man who had humorously enumerated the virtues of the All-in-One, whom the others called Spence, was of this number. He turned back, offering Lambert his hand with a smile.
"I'm glad I met you, Duke, and I hope you'll do well wherever you travel," he said, with such evident sincerity and good feeling that Lambert felt like he was parting from a friend.
"Thanks, old feller, and the same to you."
Spence went on to saddle his horse, whistling as he scuffed through the low sage. Jim sat up.
"I'll make you whistle through your ribs," he snarled after him.
It was Sunday. These men who remained in camp were enjoying the infrequent luxury of a day off. With the first gleam of morning they got out their razors and shaved, and Siwash, who seemed to be the handy man and chief counselor of the outfit, cut everybody's hair, with the exception of Jim, who had just returned from somewhere on the train, and still had the scent of the barber-shop on him, and Taterleg, who had mastered the art of shingling himself, and kept his hand in by constant practice.
Lambert mended his tire, using an old rubber boot that Taterleg found kicking around camp to plug the big holes in his outer tube. He was for going on then, but Siwash and the others pressed him to stay over the day, to which invitation he yielded without great argument.
There was nothing ahead of him but desolation, said Taterleg, a country so rough that it tried a horse to travel it. Ranchhouses were farther apart as a man proceeded, and beyond that, mountains. It looked to Taterleg as if he'd better give it up.
That was so, according to the opinion of Siwash. To his undoubted knowledge, covering the history of twenty-four years, no agent ever had penetrated that far before. Having broken this record on a bicycle, Lambert ought to be satisfied. If he was bound to travel, said Siwash, his advice would be to travel back.
It seemed to Lambert that the bottom was all out of his plans, indeed. It would be far better to chuck the whole scheme overboard and go to work as a cowboy if they would give him a job. That was nearer the sphere of his intended future activities; that was getting down to the root and foundation of a business which had a ladder in it whose rungs were not made of any general agent's hot air.
After his hot and heady way of quick decisions and planning to completion before he even had begun, Lambert was galloping the Bad Lands as superintendent of somebody's ranch, having made the leap over all the trifling years, with their trifling details of hardship, low wages, loneliness, and isolation in a wink. From superintendent he galloped swiftly on his fancy to a white ranchhouse by some calm riverside, his herds around him, his big hat on his head, market quotations coming to him by telegraph every day, packers appealing to him to ship five trainloads at once to save their government contracts.
What is the good of an imagination if a man cannot ride it, and feel the wind in his face as he flies over the world? Even though it is a liar and a trickster, and a rifler of time which a drudge of success would be stamping into gold, it is better for a man than wine. He can return from his wide excursions with no deeper injury than a sigh.
Lambert came back to the reality, broaching the subject of a job. Here Jim took notice and cut into the conversation, it being his first word to the stranger.
"Sure you can git a job, bud," he said, coming over to where Lambert sat with Siwash and Taterleg, the latter peeling potatoes for a stew, somebody having killed a calf. "The old man needs a couple of hands; he told me to keep my eye open for anybody that wanted a job."
"I'm glad to hear of it," said Lambert, warming up at the news, feeling that he must have been a bit severe in his judgment of Jim, which had not been altogether favorable.
"He'll be over in the morning; you'd better hang around."
Seeing the foundation of a new fortune taking shape, Lambert said he would "hang around." They all applauded his resolution, for they all appeared to like him in spite of his appearance, which was distinctive, indeed, among the somber colors of that sage-gray land.
Jim inquired if he had a horse, the growing interest of a friend in his manner. Hearing the facts of the case from Lambert—before dawn he had heard them from Taterleg—he appeared concerned almost to the point of being troubled.
"You'll have to git you a horse, Duke; you'll have to ride up to the boss when you hit him for a job. He never was known to hire a man off the ground, and I guess if you was to head at him on that bicycle, he'd blow a hole through you as big as a can of salmon. Any of you fellers got a horse you want to trade the Duke for his bicycle?"
The inquiry brought out a round of somewhat cloudy witticism, with proposals to Lambert for an exchange on terms rather embarrassing to meet, seeing that even the least preposterous was not sincere. Taterleg winked to assure him that it was all banter, without a bit of harm at the bottom of it, which Lambert understood very well without the services of a commentator.
Jim brightened up presently, as if he saw a gleam that might lead Lambert out of the difficulty. He had an extra horse himself, not much of a horse to look at, but as good-hearted a horse as a man ever throwed a leg over, and that wasn't no lie, if you took him the right side on. But you had to take him the right side on, and humor him, and handle him like eggs till he got used to you. Then you had as purty a little horse as a man ever throwed a leg over, anywhere.
Jim said he'd offer that horse, only he was a little bashful in the presence of strangers—meaning the horse—and didn't show up in a style to make his owner proud of him. The trouble with that horse was he used to belong to a one-legged man, and got so accustomed to the feel of a one-legged man on him that he was plumb foolish between two legs.
That horse didn't have much style to him, and no gait to speak of; but he was as good a cow-horse as ever chawed a bit. If the Duke thought he'd be able to ride him, he was welcome to him. Taterleg winked what Lambert interpreted as a warning at that point, and in the faces of the others there were little gleams of humor, which they turned their heads, or bent to study the ground, as Siwash did, to hide.
"Well, I'm not much on a horse," Lambert confessed.
"You look like a man that'd been on a horse a time or two," said Jim, with a knowing inflection, a shrewd flattery.
"I used to ride around a little, but that's been a good while ago."
"A feller never forgits how to ride," Siwash put in; "and if a man wants to work on the range, he's got to ride 'less'n he goes and gits a job runnin' sheep, and that's below any man that is a man."
Jim sat pondering the question, hands hooked in front of his knees, a match in his mouth beside his unlighted cigarette.
"I been thinkin' I'd sell that horse," said he reflectively. "Ain't got no use for him much; but I don't know."
He looked off over the chuck wagon, through the tops of the scrub pines in which the camp was set, drawing his thin, white eyebrows, considering the case.
"Winter comin' on and hay to buy," said Siwash.
"That's what I've been thinkin' and studyin' over. Shucks! I don't need that horse. I tell you what I'll do, Duke"—turning to Lambert, brisk as with a gush of sudden generosity—"if you can ride that old pelter, I'll give him to you for a present. And I bet you'll not git as cheap an offer of a horse as that ever in your life ag'in."
"I think it's too generous—I wouldn't want to take advantage of it," Lambert told him, trying to show a modesty in the matter that he did not feel.
"I ain't a-favorin' you, Duke; not a dollar. If I needed that horse, I'd hang onto him, and you wouldn't git him a cent under thirty-five bucks; but when a man don't need a horse, and it's a expense on him, he can afford to give it away—he can give it away and make money. That's what I'm a-doin', if you want to take me up."
"I'll take a look at him, Jim."
Jim got up with eagerness, and went to fetch a saddle and bridle from under the wagon. The others came into the transaction with lively interest. Only Taterleg edged round to Lambert, and whispered with his head turned away to look like innocence:
"Watch out for him—he's a bal'-faced hyeeny!"
They trooped off to the corral, which was a temporary enclosure made of wire run among the little pines. Jim brought the horse out. It stood tamely enough to be saddled, with head drooping indifferently, and showed no deeper interest and no resentment over the operation of bridling, Jim talking all the time he worked, like the faker that he was, to draw off a too-close inspection of his wares.
"Old Whetstone ain't much to look at," he said, "and as I told you, Mister, he ain't got no fancy gait; but he can bust the middle out of the breeze when he lays out a straight-ahead run. Ain't a horse on this range can touch his tail when old Whetstone throws a ham into it and lets out his stren'th."
"He looks like he might go some," Lambert commented in the vacuous way of a man who felt that he must say something, even though he didn't know anything about it.
Whetstone was rather above the stature of the general run of range horses, with clean legs and a good chest. But he was a hammer-headed, white-eyed, short-maned beast, of a pale water-color yellow, like an old dish. He had a beaten-down, bedraggled, and dispirited look about him, as if he had carried men's burdens beyond his strength for a good while, and had no heart in him to take the road again. He had a scoundrelly way of rolling his eyes to watch all that went on about him without turning his head.
Jim girthed him and cinched him, soundly and securely, for no matter who was pitched off and smashed up in that ride, he didn't want the saddle to turn and be ruined.
"Well, there he stands, Duke, and saddle and bridle goes with him if you're able to ride him. I'll be generous; I won't go half-way with you; I'll be whole hog or none. Saddle and bridle goes with Whetstone, all a free gift, if you can ride him, Duke. I want to start you up right."
It was a safe offer, taking all precedent into account, for no man ever had ridden Whetstone, not even his owner. The beast was an outlaw of the most pronounced type, with a repertory of tricks, calculated to get a man off his back, so extensive that he never seemed to repeat. He stood always as docilely as a camel to be saddled and bridled, with what method in this apparent docility no man versed in horse philosophy ever had been able to reason out. Perhaps it was that he had been born with a spite against man, and this was his scheme for luring him on to his discomfiture and disgrace.
It was an expectant little group that stood by to witness this greenhorn's rise and fall. According to his established methods, Whetstone would allow him to mount, still standing with that indifferent droop to his head. But one who was sharp would observe that he was rolling his old white eyes back to see, tipping his sharp ear like a wildcat to hear every scrape and creak of the leather. Then, with the man in the saddle, nobody knew what he would do.
That uncertainty was what made Whetstone valuable and interesting beyond any outlaw in the world. Men grew accustomed to the tricks of ordinary pitching broncos, in time, and the novelty and charm were gone. Besides, there nearly always was somebody who could ride the worst of them. Not so Whetstone. He had won a good deal of money for Jim, and everybody in camp knew that thirty-five dollars wasn't more than a third of the value that his owner put upon him.
There was boundless wonder among them, then, and no little admiration, when this stranger who had come into that unlikely place on a bicycle leaped into the saddle so quickly that old Whetstone was taken completely by surprise, and held him with such a strong hand and stiff rein that his initiative was taken from him.
The greenhorn's next maneuver was to swing the animal round till he lost his head, then clap heels to him and send him off as if he had business for the day laid out ahead of him.
It was the most amazing start that anybody ever had been known to make on Whetstone, and the most startling and enjoyable thing about it was that this strange, overgrown boy, with his open face and guileless speech, had played them all for a bunch of suckers, and knew more about riding in a minute than they ever had learned in their lives.
Jim Wilder stood by, swearing by all his obscene deities that if that man hurt Whetstone, he'd kill him for his hide. But he began to feel better in a little while. Hope, even certainty, picked up again. Whetstone was coming to himself. Perhaps the old rascal had only been elaborating his scheme a little at the start, and was now about to show them that their faith in him was not misplaced.
The horse had come to a sudden stop, legs stretched so wide that it seemed as if he surely must break in the middle. But he gathered his feet together so quickly that the next view presented him with his back arched like a fighting cat's. And there on top of him rode the Duke, his small brown hat in place, his gay shirt ruffling in the wind.
After that there came, so quickly that it made the mind and eye hasten to follow, all the tricks that Whetstone ever had tried in his past triumphs over men; and through all of them, sharp, shrewd, unexpected, startling as some of them were, that little brown hat rode untroubled on top. Old Whetstone was as wet at the end of ten minutes as if he had swum a river. He grunted with anger as he heaved and lashed, he squealed in his resentful passion as he swerved, lunged, pitched, and clawed the air.
The little band of spectators cheered the Duke, calling loudly to inform him that he was the only man who ever had stuck that long. The Duke waved his hat in acknowledgement, and put it back on with deliberation and exactness, while old Whetstone, as mad as a wet hen, tried to roll down suddenly and crush his legs.
Nothing to be accomplished by that old trick. The Duke pulled him up with a wrench that made him squeal, and Whetstone, lifted off his forelegs, attempted to complete the backward turn and catch his tormentor under the saddle. But that was another trick so old that the simplest horseman knew how to meet it. The next thing he knew, Whetstone was galloping along like a gentleman, just wind enough in him to carry him, not an ounce to spare.
Jim Wilder was swearing himself blue. It was a trick, an imposition, he declared. No circus-rider could come there and abuse old Whetstone that way and live to eat his dinner. Nobody appeared to share his view of it. They were a unit in declaring that the Duke beat any man handling a horse they ever saw. If Whetstone didn't get him off pretty soon, he would be whipped and conquered, his belly on the ground.
"If he hurts that horse I'll blow a hole in him as big as a can of salmon!" Jim declared.
"Take your medicine like a man, Jim," Siwash advised. "You might know somebody'd come along that'd ride him, in time."
"Yes, come along!" said Jim with a sneer.
Whetstone had begun to collect himself out on the flat among the sagebrush a quarter of a mile away. The frenzy of desperation was in him. He was resorting to the raw, low, common tricks of the ordinary outlaw, even to biting at his rider's legs. That ungentlemanly behavior was costly, as he quickly learned, at the expense of a badly cut mouth. He never had met a rider before who had energy to spare from his efforts to stick in the saddle to slam him a big kick in the mouth when he doubled himself to make that vicious snap. The sound of that kick carried to the corral.
"I'll fix you for that!" Jim swore.
He was breathing as hard as his horse, sweat of anxiety running down his face. The Duke was bringing the horse back, his spirit pretty well broken, it appeared.
"What do you care what he does to him? It ain't your horse no more."
It was Taterleg who said that, standing near Jim, a little way behind him, as gorgeous as a bridegroom in the bright sun.
"You fellers can't ring me in on no game like that and beat me out of my horse!" said Jim, redder than ever in his passion.
"Who do you mean, rung you in, you little, flannel-faced fiste?" Siwash demanded, whirling round on him with blood in his eye.
Jim was standing with his legs apart, bent a little at the knees, as if he intended to make a jump. His right hand was near the butt of his gun, his fingers were clasping and unclasping, as if he limbered them for action. Taterleg slipped up behind him on his toes, and jerked the gun from Jim's scabbard with quick and sure hand. He backed away with it, presenting it with determined mien as Jim turned on him and cursed him by all his lurid gods.
"If you fight anybody in this camp today, Jim, you'll fight like a man," said Taterleg, "or you'll hobble out of it on three legs, like a wolf."
The Duke was riding old Whetstone like a feather, letting him have his spurts of kicking and stiff-legged bouncing without any effort to restrain him at all. There wasn't much steam in the outlaw's antics now; any common man could have ridden him without losing his hat.
Jim had drawn apart from the others, resentful of the distrust that Taterleg had shown, but more than half of his courage and bluster taken away from him with his gun. He was swearing more volubly than ever to cover his other deficiencies; but he was a man to be feared only when he had his weapon under his hand.
The Duke had brought the horse almost back to camp when the animal was taken with an extraordinarily vicious spasm of pitching, broken by sudden efforts to fling himself down and roll over on his persistent rider. The Duke let him have it his way, all but the rolling, for a while; then he appeared to lose patience with the stubborn beast. He headed him into the open, laid the quirt to him, and galloped toward the hills.
"That's the move—run the devil out of him," said one.
The Duke kept him going, and going for all there was in him. Horse and rider were dim in the dust of the heated race against the evil passion, the untamed demon, in the savage creature's heart. It began to look as if Lambert never intended to come back. Jim saw it that way. He came over to Taterleg as hot as a hornet.
"Give me that gun—I'm goin' after him!"
"You'll have to go without it, Jim."
Jim blasted him to sulphurous perdition, and split him with forked lightning from his blasphemous tongue.
"He'll come back; he's just runnin' the vinegar out of him," said one.
"Come back—hell!" said Jim.
"If he don't come back, that's his business. A man can go wherever he wants to go on his own horse, I guess."
That was the observation of Siwash, standing there rather glum and out of tune over Jim's charge that they had rung the Duke in on him to beat him out of his animal.
"It was a put-up job! I'll split that feller like a hog!"
Jim left them with that declaration of his benevolent intention, hurrying to the corral where his horse was, his saddle on the ground by the gate. They watched him saddle, and saw him mount and ride after the Duke, with no comment on his actions at all.
The Duke was out of sight in the scrub timber at the foot of the hills, but his dust still floated like the wake of a swift boat, showing the way he had gone.
"Yes, you will!" said Taterleg.
Meaningless, irrelevant, as that fragmentary ejaculation seemed, the others understood. They grinned, and twisted wise heads, spat out their tobacco, and went back to dinner.
[Footnote 1: Fice—dog.]
AN EMPTY SADDLE
The Duke was seen coming back before the meal was over, across the little plain between camp and hills. A quarter of a mile behind him Jim Wilder rode, whether seen or unseen by the man in the lead they did not know.
Jim had fallen behind somewhat by the time the Duke reached camp. The admiration of all hands over this triumph against horseflesh and the devil within it was so great that they got up to welcome the Duke, and shake hands with him as he left the saddle. He was as fresh and nimble, unshaken and serene, as when he mounted old Whetstone more than an hour before.
Whetstone was a conquered beast, beyond any man's doubt. He stood with flaring nostrils, scooping in his breath, not a dry hair on him, not a dash of vinegar in his veins.
"Where's Jim?" the Duke inquired.
"Comin'," Taterleg replied, waving his hand afield.
"What's he doin' out there—where's he been?" the Duke inquired, a puzzled look in his face, searching their sober countenances for his answer.
"He thought you——"
"Let him do his own talkin', kid," said Siwash, cutting off the cowboy's explanation.
Siwash looked at the Duke shrewdly, his head cocked to one side like a robin listening for a worm.
"What outfit was you with before you started out sellin' them tooth-puller-can-opener machines, son?" he inquired.
"Outfit? What kind of an outfit?"
"Ranch, innercence; what range was you ridin' on?"
"I never rode any range, I'm sorry to say."
"Well, where in the name of mustard did you learn to ride?"
"I used to break range horses for five dollars a head at the Kansas City Stockyards. That was a good while ago; I'm all out of practice now."
"Yes, and I bet you can throw a rope, too."
"Nothing to speak of."
"Nothing to speak of! Yes, I'll bet you nothing to speak of!"
Jim didn't stop at the corral to turn in his horse, but came clattering into camp, madder for the race that the Duke had led him in ignorance of his pursuit, as every man could see. He flung himself out of the saddle with a flip like a bird taking to the wing, his spurs cutting the ground as he came over to where Lambert stood.
"Maybe you can ride my horse, you damn granger, but you can't ride me!" he said.
He threw off his vest as he spoke, that being his only superfluous garment, and bowed his back for a fight. Lambert looked at him with a flush of indignant contempt spreading in his face.
"You don't need to get sore about it; I only took you up at your own game," he said.
"No circus-ringer's goin' to come in here and beat me out of my horse. You'll either put him back in that corral or you'll chaw leather with me!"
"I'll put him back in the corral when I'm ready, but I'll put him back as mine. I won him on your own bet, and it'll take a whole lot better man than you to take him away from me."
In the manner of youth and independence, Lambert got hotter with every word, and after that there wasn't much room for anything else to be said on either side. They mixed it, and they mixed it briskly, for Jim's contempt for a man who wore a hat like that supplied the courage that had been drained from him when he was disarmed.
There was nothing epic in that fight, nothing heroic at all. It was a wildcat struggle in the dust, no more science on either side than nature put into their hands at the beginning. But they surely did kick up a lot of dust. It would have been a peaceful enough little fight, with a handshake at the end and all over in an hour, very likely, if Jim hadn't managed to get out his knife when he felt himself in for a trimming.
It was a mean-looking knife, with a buck-horn handle and a four-inch blade that leaped open on pressure of a spring. Its type was widely popular all over the West in those days, but one of them would be almost a curiosity now. But Jim had it out, anyhow, lying on his back with the Duke's knee on his ribs, and was whittling away before any man could raise a hand to stop him.
The first slash split the Duke's cheek for two inches just below his eye; the next tore his shirt sleeve from shoulder to elbow, grazing the skin as it passed. And there somebody kicked Jim's elbow and knocked the knife out of his hand.
"Let him up, Duke," he said.
Lambert released the strangle hold that he had taken on Jim's throat and looked up. It was Spence, standing there with his horse behind him. He laid his hand on Lambert's shoulder.
"Let him up, Duke," he said again.
Lambert got up, bleeding a cataract. Jim bounced to his feet like a spring, his hand to his empty holster, a look of dismay in his blanching face.
"That's your size, you nigger!" Spence said, kicking the knife beyond Jim's reach. "That's the kind of a low-down cuss you always was. This man's our guest, and when you pull a knife on him you pull it on me!"
"You know I ain't got a gun on me, you——"
"Git it, you sneakin' houn'!"
Jim looked round for Taterleg.
"Where's my gun? you greasy potslinger!"
"Give it to him, whoever's got it."
Taterleg produced it. Jim began backing off as soon as he had it in his hand, watching Spence alertly. Lambert leaped between them.
"Gentlemen, don't go to shootin' over a little thing like this!" he begged.
Taterleg came between them, also, and Siwash, quite blocking up the fairway.
"Now, boys, put up your guns; this is Sunday, you know," Siwash said.
"Give me room, men!" Spence commanded, in voice that trembled with passion, with the memory of old quarrels, old wrongs, which this last insult to the camp's guest gave the excuse for wiping out. There was something in his tone not to be denied; they fell out of his path as if the wind had blown them. Jim fired, his elbow against his ribs.
Too confident of his own speed, or forgetting that Wilder already had his weapon out, Spence crumpled at the knees, toppled backward, fell. His pistol, half-drawn, dropped from the holster and lay at his side. Wilder came a step nearer and fired another shot into the fallen man's body, dead as he must have known him to be. He ran on to his horse, mounted, and rode away.
Some of the others hurried to the wagon after their guns. Lambert, for a moment shocked to the heart by the sudden horror of the tragedy, bent over the body of the man who had taken up his quarrel without even knowing the merits of it, or whose fault lay at the beginning. A look into his face was enough to tell that there was nothing within the compass of this earth that could bring back life to that strong, young body, struck down in a breath like a broken vase. He looked up. Jim Wilder was bending in the saddle as he rode swiftly away, as if he expected them to shoot. A great fire of resentment for this man's destructive deed swept over him, hotter than the hot blood wasting from his wounded cheek. The passion of vengeance wrenched his joints, his hand shook and grew cold, as he stooped again to unfasten the belt about his friend's dead body.
Armed with the weapon that had been drawn a fraction of a second too late, drawn in the chivalrous defense of hospitality, the high courtesy of an obligation to a stranger, Lambert mounted the horse that had come to be his at the price of this tragedy, and galloped in pursuit of the fleeing man.
Some of the young men were hurrying to the corral, belting on their guns as they ran to fetch their horses and join the pursuit. Siwash called them back.
"Leave it to him, boys; it's his by rights," he said.
Taterleg stood looking after the two riders, the hindmost drawing steadily upon the leader, and stood looking so until they disappeared in the timber at the base of the hills.
"My God!" said he. And again, after a little while: "My God!"
It was dusk when Lambert came back, leading Jim Wilder's horse. There was blood on the empty saddle.
"AND SPEAK IN PASSING"
The events of that Sunday introduced Lambert into the Bad Lands and established his name and fame. Within three months after going to work for the Syndicate ranch he was known for a hundred miles around as the man who had broken Jim Wilder's outlaw and won the horse by that unparalleled feat.
That was the prop to his fame—that he had broken Jim Wilder's outlaw. Certainly he was admired and commended for the unhesitating action he had taken in avenging the death of his friend, but in that he had done only what was expected of any man worthy the name. Breaking the outlaw was a different matter entirely. In doing that he had accomplished what was believed to be beyond the power of any living man.
According to his own belief, his own conscience, Lambert had made a bad start. A career that had its beginning in contentions and violence, enough of it crowded into one day to make more than the allotment of an ordinary life, could not terminate with any degree of felicity and honor. They thought little of killing a man in that country, it seemed; no more than a perfunctory inquiry, to fulfill the letter of the law, had been made by the authorities into Jim Wilder's death.
While it relieved him to know that the law held his justification to be ample, there was a shadow following him which he could not evade in any of the hilarious diversions common to those wild souls of the range.
It troubled him that he had killed a man, even in a fair fight in the open field with the justification of society at his back. In his sleep it harried him with visions; awake, it oppressed him like a sorrow, or the memory of a shame. He became solemn and silent as a chastened man, seldom smiling, laughing never.
When he drank with his companions in the little saloon at Misery, the loading station on the railroad, he took his liquor as gravely as the sacrament; when he raced them he rode with face grim as an Indian, never whooping in victory, never swearing in defeat.
He had left even his own lawful and proper name behind him with his past. Far and near he was known as the Duke of Chimney Butte, shortened in cases of direct address to "Duke." He didn't resent it, rather took a sort of grim pride in it, although he felt at times that it was one more mark of his surrender to circumstances whose current he might have avoided at the beginning by the exercise of a proper man's sense.
A man was expected to drink a good deal of the overardent spirits which were sold at Misery. If he could drink without becoming noisy, so much the more to his credit, so much higher he stood in the estimation of his fellows as a copper-bottomed sport of the true blood. The Duke could put more of that notorious whisky under cover, and still contain himself, than any man they ever had seen in Misery. The more he drank the glummer he became, but he never had been known either to weep or curse.
Older men spoke to him with respect, younger ones approached him with admiration, unable to understand what kind of a safety-valve a man had on his mouth that would keep his steam in when that Misery booze began to sizzle in his pipes. His horse was a subject of interest almost equal to himself.
Under his hand old Whetstone—although not more than seven—had developed unexpected qualities. When the animal's persecution ceased, his perversity fled. He grew into a well-conditioned creature, sleek of coat, beautiful of tail as an Arab barb, bright of eye, handsome to behold. His speed and endurance were matters of as much note as his outlawry had been but a little while before, and his intelligence was something almost beyond belief.
Lambert had grown exceedingly fond of him, holding him more in the estimation of a companion than the valuation of a dumb creature of burden. When they rode the long watches at night he talked to him, and Whetstone would put back his sensitive ear and listen, and toss his head in joyful appreciation of his master's confidence and praise.
Few horses had beaten Whetstone in a race since he became the Duke's property. It was believed that none on that range could do it if the Duke wanted to put him to his limit. It was said that the Duke lost only such races as he felt necessary to the continuance of his prosperity.
Racing was one of the main diversions when the cowboys from the surrounding ranches met at Misery on a Sunday afternoon, or when loading cattle there. Few trains stopped at Misery, a circumstance resented by the cowboys, who believed the place should be as important to all the world as it was to them. To show their contempt for this aloof behavior they usually raced the trains, frequently outrunning those westward bound as they labored up the long grade.
Freight trains especially they took delight in beating, seeing how it nettled the train crews. There was nothing more delightful in any program of amusement that a cowboy could conceive than riding abreast of a laboring freight engine, the sulky engineer crowding every pound of power into the cylinders, the sooty fireman humping his back throwing in coal. Only one triumph would have been sweeter—to outrun the big passenger train from Chicago with the brass-fenced car at the end.
No man ever had done that yet, although many had tried. The engineers all knew what to expect on a Sunday afternoon when they approached Misery, where the cowboys came through the fence and raced the trains on the right-of-way. A long, level stretch of soft gray earth, set with bunches of grass here and there, began a mile beyond the station, unmarred by steam-shovel or grader's scraper. A man could ride it with his eyes shut; a horse could cover it at its best.
That was the racing ground over which they had contended with the Chicago-Puget Sound flier for many years, and a place which engineers and firemen prepared to pass quickly while yet a considerable distance away. It was a sight to see the big engine round the curve below, its plume of smoke rising straight for twenty feet, streaming back like a running girl's hair, the cowboys all set in their saddles, waiting to go.
Engineers on the flier were not so sulky about it, knowing that the race was theirs before it was run. Usually they leaned out of the window and urged the riders on with beckoning, derisive hand, while the fireman stood by grinning, confident of the head of steam he had begun storing for this emergency far down the road.
Porters told passengers about these wild horsemen in advance, and eager faces lined the windows on that side of the cars as they approached Misery, and all who could pack on the end of the observation car assembled there. In spite of its name, Misery was quite a comfortable break in the day's monotony for travelers on a Sunday afternoon.
Amid the hardships and scant diversions of this life, Lambert spent his first winter in the Bad Lands, drinking in the noisy revels at Misery, riding the long, bitter miles back to the ranch, despising himself for being so mean and low. It was a life in which a man's soul would either shrink to nothing or expand until it became too large to find contentment within the horizon of such an existence.
Some of them expanded up to the size for ranch owners, superintendents, bosses; stopped there, set in their mold. Lambert never had heard of one stretching so wide that he was drawn out of himself entirely, his eyes fixed on the far light of a nobler life. He liked to imagine a man so inspired out of the lonely watches, the stormy rides, the battle against blizzard and night.
This train of thought had carried him away that gentle spring day as he rode to Misery. He resented the thought that he might have to spend his youth as a hired servant in this rough occupation, unremunerative below the hope of ever gaining enough to make a start in business for himself. There was no romance in it, for all that had been written, no beautiful daughter of the ranch owner to be married, and a fortune gained with her.
Daughters there must be, indeed, among the many stockholders in that big business, but they were not available in the Bad Lands. The superintendent of the ranch had three or four, born to that estate, full of loud laughter, ordinary as baled hay. A man would be a loser in marrying such as they, even with a fortune ready made.
What better could that rough country offer? People are no gentler than their pursuits, no finer than the requirements of their lives. Daughters of the Bad Lands, such as he had seen of them in the wives to whom he once had tried to sell the All-in-One, and the superintendent's girls were not intended for any other life. As for him, if he had to live it out there, with the shadow of a dead man at his heels, he would live it alone. So he thought, going on his way to Misery, where there was to be racing that afternoon, and a grand effort to keep up with the Chicago flier.
Lambert never had taken part in that longstanding competition. It appeared to him a senseless expenditure of horseflesh, a childish pursuit of the wind. Yet, foolish as it was, he liked to watch them. There was a thrill in the sweeping start of twenty or thirty horsemen that warmed a man, making him feel as if he must whoop and wave his hat. There was a belief alive among them that some day a man would come who would run the train neck and neck to the depot platform.
Not much distinction in it, even so, said he. But it set him musing and considering as he rode, his face quickening out of its somber cloud. A little while after his arrival at Misery the news went round that the Duke was willing at last to enter the race against the flier.
True to his peculiarities, the Duke had made conditions. He was willing to race, but only if everybody else would keep out of it and give him a clear and open field. Taterleg Wilson, the bow-legged camp cook of the Syndicate, circulated himself like a petition to gain consent to this unusual proposal.
It was asking a great deal of those men to give up their established diversion, no matter how distinguished the man in whose favor they were requested to stand aside. That Sunday afternoon race had become as much a fixed institution in the Bad Lands as the railroad itself. With some argument, some bucking and snorting, a considerable cost to Taterleg for liquor and cigars, they agreed to it. Taterleg said he could state, authoritatively, that this would be the Duke's first, last, and only ride against the flier. It would be worth money to stand off and watch it, he said, and worth putting money on the result. When, where, would a man ever have a chance to see such a race again? Perhaps never in his life.
On time, to a dot, the station agent told the committee headed by Taterleg, which had gone to inquire in the grave and important manner of men conducting a ceremony. The committee went back to the saloon, and pressed the Duke to have a drink. He refused, as he had refused politely and consistently all day. A man could fight on booze, he said, but it was a mighty poor foundation for business.
There was a larger crowd in Misery that day than usual for the time of year, it being the first general holiday after the winter's hard exactions. In addition to visitors, all Misery turned out to see the race, lining up at the right-of-way fence as far as they would go, which was not a great distance along. The saloon-keeper could see the finish from his door. On the start of it he was not concerned, but he had money up on the end.
Lambert hadn't as much flesh, by a good many pounds, as he had carried into the Bad Lands on his bicycle. One who had known him previously would have thought that seven years had passed him, making him over completely, indeed, since then. His face was thin, browned and weathered, his body sinewy, its leanness aggravated by its length. He was as light in the saddle as a leaf on the wind.
He was quite a barbaric figure as he waited to mount and ride against the train, which could be heard whistling far down the road. Coatless, in flannel shirt, a bright silk handkerchief round his neck; calfskin vest, tanned with the hair on, its color red and white; dressed leather chaps, a pair of boots that had cost him two-thirds of a month's pay. His hat was like forty others in the crowd, doe-colored, worn with the high crown full-standing, a leather thong at the back of the head, the brim drooping a bit from the weather, so broad that his face looked narrower and sharper in its shadow.
Nothing like the full-blooded young aggie who had come into the Bad Lands to found his fortune a little less than a year before, and about as different from him in thought and outlook upon life as in physical appearance. The psychology of environment is a powerful force.
A score or more of horsemen were strung out along the course, where they had stationed themselves to watch the race at its successive stages, and cheer their champion on his way. At the starting-point the Duke waited alone; at the station a crowd of cowboys lolled in their saddles, not caring to make a run to see the finish.
It was customary for the horsemen who raced the flier to wait on the ground until the engine rounded the curve, then mount and settle to the race. It was counted fair, also, owing to the headway the train already had, to start a hundred yards or so before the engine came abreast, in order to limber up to the horses' best speed.
For two miles or more the track ran straight after that curve, Misery about the middle of the stretch. In that long, straight reach the builders of the road had begun the easement of the stiff grade through the hills beyond. It was the beginning of a hard climb, a stretch in which west-bound trains gathered headway to carry them over the top. Engines came panting round that curve, laboring with the strain of their load, speed reduced half, and dropping a bit lower as they proceeded up the grade.
This Sunday, as usual, train crew and passengers were on the lookout for the game sportsmen of Misery. Already the engineer was leaning out of his window, arm extended, ready to give the derisive challenge to come on as he swept by.
The Duke was in the saddle, holding in Whetstone with stiff rein, for the animal was trembling with eagerness to spring away, knowing very well from the preparations which had been going forward that some big event in the lives of his master and himself was pending. The Duke held him, looking back over his shoulder, measuring the distance as the train came sweeping grandly round the curve. He waited until the engine was within a hundred feet of him before he loosed rein and let old Whetstone go.
A yell ran up the line of spectators as the pale yellow horse reached out his long neck, chin level against the wind like a swimmer, and ran as no horse ever had run on that race-course before. Every horseman there knew that the Duke was still holding him in, allowing the train to creep up on him as if he scorned to take advantage of the handicap.
The engineer saw that this was going to be a different kind of race from the yelling, chattering troop of wild riders which he had been outrunning with unbroken regularity. In that yellow streak of horse, that low-bending, bony rider, he saw a possibility of defeat and disgrace. His head disappeared out of the window, his derisive hand vanished. He was turning valves and pulling levers, trying to coax a little more power into his piston strokes.
The Duke held Whetstone back until his wind had set to the labor, his muscles flexed, his sinews stretched to the race. A third of the race was covered when the engine came neck and neck with the horse, and the engineer, confident now, leaned far out, swinging his hand like the oar of a boat, and shouted:
"Come on! Come on!"
Just a moment too soon this confidence, a moment too soon this defiance. It was the Duke's program to run this thing neck and neck, force to force, with no advantage asked or taken. Then if he could gather speed and beat the engine on the home stretch no man, on the train or off, could say that he had done it with the advantage of a handicap.
There was a great whooping, a great thumping of hoofs, a monstrous swirl of dust, as the riders at the side of the race-course saw the Duke's maneuver and read his intention. Away they swept, a noisy troop, like a flight of blackbirds, hats off, guns popping, in a scramble to get up as close to the finishing line as possible.
Never before in the long history of that unique contest had there been so much excitement. Porters opened the vestibule doors, allowing passengers to crowd the steps; windows were opened, heads thrust out, every tongue urging the horseman on with cheers.
The Duke was riding beside the engineer, not ten feet between them. More than half the course was run, and there the Duke hung, the engine not gaining an inch. The engineer was on his feet now, hand on the throttle lever, although it was open as wide as it could be pulled. The fireman was throwing coal into the furnace, looking round over his shoulder now and then at the persistent horseman who would not be outrun, his eyes white in his grimy face.
On the observation car women hung over the rail at the side, waving handkerchiefs at the rider's back; along the fence the inhabitants of Misery broke away like leaves before a wind and went running toward the depot; ahead of the racing horse and engine the mounted men who had taken a big start rode on toward the station in a wild, delirious charge.
Neck and neck with the engine old Whetstone ran, throwing his long legs like a wolf-hound, his long neck stretched, his ears flat, not leaving a hair that he could control outstanding to catch the wind. The engineer was peering ahead with fixed eyes now, as if he feared to look again on this puny combination of horse and man that was holding its own in this unequal trial of strength.
Within three hundred yards of the station platform, which sloped down at the end like a continuation of the course, the Duke touched old Whetstone's neck with the tips of his fingers. As if he had given a signal upon which they had agreed, the horse gathered power, grunting as he used to grunt in the days of his outlawry, and bounded away from the cab window, where the greasy engineer stood with white face and set jaw.
Yard by yard the horse gained, his long mane flying, his long tail astream, foam on his lips, forging past the great driving wheels which ground against the rails; past the swinging piston; past the powerful black cylinders; past the stubby pilot, advancing like a shadow over the track. When Whetstone's hoofs struck the planks of the platform, marking the end of the course, he was more than the length of the engine in the lead.
The Duke sat there waving his hand solemnly to those who cheered him as the train swept past, the punchers around him lifting up a joyful chorus of shots and shouts, showing off on their own account to a considerable extent, but sincere over all because of the victory that the Duke had won.
Old Whetstone was standing where he had stopped, within a few feet of the track, front hoofs on the boards of the platform, not more than nicely warmed up for another race, it appeared. As the observation car passed, a young woman leaned over the rail, handkerchief reached out to the Duke as if trying to give it to him.
He saw her only a second before she passed, too late to make even a futile attempt to possess the favor of her appreciation. She laughed, waving it to him, holding it out as if in challenge for him to come and take it. Without wasting a precious fragment of a second in hesitation the Duke sent Whetstone thundering along the platform in pursuit of the train.
It seemed a foolish thing to do, and a risky venture, for the platform was old, its planks were weak in places. It was not above a hundred feet long, and beyond it only a short stretch of right-of-way until the public road crossed the track, the fence running down to the cattle guard, blocking his hope of overtaking the train.
More than that, the train was picking up speed, as if the engineer wanted to get out of sight and hearing of that demonstrative crowd, and put his humiliation behind him as quickly as possible. No man's horse could make a start with planks under his feet, run two hundred yards and overtake that train, no matter what the inducement. That was the thought of every man who sat a saddle there and stretched his neck to witness this unparalleled streak of folly.
If Whetstone had run swiftly in the first race, he fairly whistled through the air like a wild duck in the second. Before he had run the length of the platform he had gained on the train, his nose almost even with the brass railing over which the girl leaned, the handkerchief in her hand. Midway between the platform and the cattle guard they saw the Duke lean in his saddle and snatch the white favor from her hand.
The people on the train end cheered this feat of quick resolution, quicker action. But the girl whose handkerchief the Duke had won only leaned on the railing, holding fast with both hands, as if she offered her lips to be kissed, and looked at him with a pleasure in her face that he could read as the train bore her onward into the West.
The Duke sat there with his hat in his hand, gazing after her, only her straining face in his vision, centered out of the dust and widening distance like a star that a man gazes on to fix his course before it is overwhelmed by clouds.
The Duke sat watching after her, the train reducing the distance like a vision that melts out of the heart with a sigh. She raised her hand as the dust closed in the wake of the train. He thought she beckoned him.
So she came, and went, crossing his way in the Bad Lands in that hour of his small triumph, and left her perfumed token of appreciation in his hand. The Duke put it away in the pocket of his shirt beneath the calfskin vest, the faint delicacy of its perfume rising to his nostrils like the elusive scent of a violet for which one searches the woodland and cannot find.
The dusty hills had gulped the train that carried her before the Duke rode round the station and joined his noisy comrades. Everybody shook hands with him, everybody invited him to have a drink. He put them off—friend, acquaintance, stranger, on their pressing invitation to drink—with the declaration that his horse came first in his consideration. After he had put Whetstone in the livery barn and fed him, he would join them for a round, he said.
They trooped into the saloon to square their bets, the Duke going his way to the barn. There they drank and grew noisier than before, to come out from time to time, mount their horses, gallop up and down the road that answered Misery for a street, and shoot good ammunition into the harmless air.
Somebody remarked after a while that the Duke was a long time feeding that horse. Taterleg and others went to investigate. He had not been there, the keeper of the livery barn said. A further look around exhausted all the possible hiding-places of Misery. The Duke was not there.
"Well," said Taterleg, puzzled, "I guess he's went."
FEET UPON THE ROAD
"I always thought I'd go out West, but somehow I never got around to it," Taterleg said. "How far do you aim to go, Duke?"
"As far as the notion takes me, I guess."
It was about a month after the race that this talk between Taterleg and the Duke took place, on a calm afternoon in a camp far from the site of that one into which the peddler of cutlery had trundled his disabled bicycle a year before. The Duke had put off his calfskin vest, the weather being too hot for it. Even Taterleg had made sacrifices to appearance in favor of comfort, his piratical corduroys being replaced by overalls.
The Duke had quit his job, moved by the desire to travel on and see the world, he said. He said no word to any man about the motive behind that desire, very naturally, for he was not the kind of a man who opened the door of his heart. But to himself he confessed the hunger for an unknown face, for the lure of an onward-beckoning hand which he was no longer able to ignore.
Since that day she had strained over the brass railing of the car to hold him in her sight until the curtain of dust intervened, he had felt her call urging him into the West, the strength of her beckoning hand drawing him the way she had gone, to search the world for her and find her on some full and glorious day.
"Was you aimin' to sell Whetstone and go on the train, Duke?"
"No, I'm not goin' to sell him yet a while."
The Duke was not a talkative man on any occasion, and now he sat in silence watching the cook kneading out a batch of bread, his thoughts a thousand miles away.
Where, indeed, would the journey that he was shaping in his intention that minute carry him? Somewhere along the railroad between there and Puget Sound the beckoning lady had left the train; somewhere on that long road between mountain and sea she was waiting for him to come.
Taterleg stood his loaves in the sun to rise for the oven, making a considerable rattling about the stove as he put in the fire. A silence fell.
Lambert was waiting for his horse to rest a few hours, and, waiting, he sent his dreams ahead of him where his feet could not follow save by weary roads and slow.
Between Misery and the end of that railroad at the western sea there were many villages, a few cities. A passenger might alight from the Chicago flier at any of them, and be absorbed in the vastness like a drop of water in the desert plain. How was he to know where she had left the train, or whither she had turned afterward, or journeyed, or where she lodged now? It seemed beyond finding out. Assuredly it was a task too great for the life of youth, so evanescent in the score of time, even though so long and heavy to those impatient dreamers who draw themselves onward by its golden chain to the cold, harsh facts of age.
It was a foolish quest, a hopeless one. So reason said. Romance and youth, and the longing that he could not define, rose to confute this sober argument, flushed and eager, violet scent blowing before.
Who could tell? and perhaps; rash speculations, faint promises. The world was not so broad that two might never meet in it whose ways had touched for one heart-throb and sundered again in a sigh. All his life he had been hearing that it was a small place, after all was said. Perhaps, and who can tell? And so, galloping onward in the free leash of his ardent dreams.
"When was you aimin' to start, Duke?" Taterleg inquired, after a silence so long that Lambert had forgotten he was there.
"In about another hour."
"I wasn't tryin' to hurry you off, Duke. My reason for askin' you was because I thought maybe I might be able to go along with you a piece of the way, if you don't object to my kind of company."
"Why, you're not goin' to jump the job, are you?"
"Yes, I've been thinkin' it over, and I've made up my mind to draw my time tonight. If you'll put off goin' till mornin', I'll start with you. We can travel together till our roads branch, anyhow."
"I'll be glad to wait for you, old feller. I didn't know—which way——"
"Wyoming," said Taterleg, sighing. "It's come back on me ag'in."
"Well, a feller has to rove and ramble, I guess."
Taterleg sighed, looking off westward with dreamy eyes. "Yes, if he's got a girl pullin' on his heart," said he.
The Duke started as if he had been accused, his secret read, his soul laid bare; he felt the blood burn in his face, and mount to his eyes like a drift of smoke. But Taterleg was unconscious of this sudden embarrassment, this flash of panic for the thing which the Duke believed lay so deep in his heart no man could ever find it out and laugh at it or make gay over the scented romance. Taterleg was still looking off in a general direction that was westward, a little south of west.
"She's in Wyoming," said Taterleg; "a lady I used to rush out in Great Bend, Kansas, a long time ago."
"Oh," said the Duke, relieved and interested. "How long ago was that?"
"Over four years," sighed Taterleg, as if it might have been a quarter of a century.
"Not so very long, Taterleg."
"Yes, but a lot of fellers can court a girl in four years, Duke."
The Duke thought it over a spell. "Yes, I reckon they can," he allowed. "Don't she ever write to you?"
"I guess I'm more to blame than she is on that, Duke. She did write, but I was kind of sour and dropped her. It's hard to git away from, though; it's a-comin' over me ag'in. I might 'a' been married and settled down with that girl now, me and her a-runnin' a oyster parlor in some good little railroad town, if it hadn't 'a' been for a Welshman name of Elwood. He was a stonecutter, that Elwood feller was, Duke, workin' on bridge 'butments on the Santa Fe. That feller told her I was married and had four children; he come between us and bust us up."
"Wasn't he onery!" said the Duke, feelingly.
"I was chef in the hotel where that girl worked waitin' table, drawin' down good money, and savin' it, too. But that derned Welshman got around her and she growed cold. When she left Great Bend she went to Wyoming to take a job—Lander was the town she wrote from, I can put my finger on it in the map with my eyes shut. I met her when she was leavin' for the depot, draggin' along with her grip and no Welshman in a mile of her to give her a hand. I went up and tipped my hat, but I never smiled, Duke, for I was sour over the way that girl she'd treated me. I just took hold of that grip and carried it to the depot for her and tipped my hat to her once more. 'You're a gentleman, whatever they say of you, Mr. Wilson,' she said."
"She did, Duke. 'You're a gentleman, Mr. Wilson, whatever they say of you,' she said. Them was her words, Duke. 'Farewell to you,' I said, distant and high-mighty, for I was hurt, Duke—I was hurt right down to the bone."
"I bet you was, old feller."
"'Farewell to you,' I says, and the tears come in her eyes, and she says to me—wipin' 'em on a han'kerchief I give her, nothing any Welshman ever done for her, and you can bank on that Duke—she says to me: 'I'll always think of you as a gentleman, Mr. Wilson.' I wasn't onto what that Welshman told her then; I didn't know the straight of it till she wrote and told me after she got to Wyoming."
"It was too bad, old feller."
"Wasn't it hell? I was so sore when she wrote, the way she'd believed that little sawed-off snorter with rock dust in his hair, I never answered that letter for a long time. Well, I got another letter from her about a year after that. She was still in the same place, doin' well. Her name was Nettie Morrison."
"Maybe it is yet, Taterleg."
"Maybe. I've been a-thinkin' I'd go out there and look her up, and if she ain't married, me and her we might let bygones be bygones and hitch. I could open a oyster parlor out there on the dough I've saved up; I'd dish 'em up and she'd wait on the table and take in the money. We'd do well, Duke."
"I bet you would."
"I got the last letter she wrote—I'll let you see it, Duke."
Taterleg made a rummaging in the chuck wagon, coming out presently with the letter. He stood contemplating it with tender eye.
"Some writer, ain't she, Duke?"
"She sure is a fine writer, Taterleg—writes like a schoolma'am."
"She can talk like one, too. See—'Lander, Wyo.' It's a little town about as big as my hat, from the looks of it on the map, standin' away off up there alone. I could go to it with my eyes shut, straight as a bee."
"Why don't you write to her, Taterleg?" The Duke could scarcely keep back a smile, so diverting he found this affair of the Welshman, the waitress, and the cook. More comedy than romance, he thought, Taterleg on one side of the fence, that girl on the other.
"I've been a-squarin' off to write," Taterleg replied, "but I don't seem to git the time." He opened his vest to put the letter away close to his heart, it seemed, that it might remind him of his intention and square him quite around to the task. But there was no pocket on the side covering his heart. Taterleg put the letter next his lung as the nearest approach to that sentimental portion of his anatomy, and sighed long and loud as he buttoned his garment.
"You said you'd put off goin' till mornin', Duke?"
"Sure I will."
"I'll throw my things in a sack and be ready to hit the breeze with you after breakfast. I can write back to the boss for my time."
* * * * *
Morning found them on the road together, the sun at their backs. Taterleg was as brilliant as a humming-bird, even to his belt and scabbard, which had a great many silver tacks driven into them, repeating the letters LW in great characters and small. He said the letters were the initials of his name.
"Lawrence?" the Duke ventured to inquire.
Taterleg looked round him with great caution before answering, although they were at least fifteen miles from camp, and farther than that from the next human habitation. He lowered his voice, rubbing his hand reflectively along the glittering ornaments of his belt.
"Lovelace," he said.
"Not a bad name."
"It ain't no name for a cook," Taterleg said, almost vindictively. "You're the first man I ever told it to, and I'll ask you not to pass it on. I used to go by the name of Larry before they called me Taterleg. I got that name out here in the Bad Lands; it suits me, all right."
"It's a queer kind of a name to call a man by. How did they come to give it to you?"
"Well, sir, I give myself that name, you might say, when you come to figger it down to cases. I was breakin' a horse when I first come out here four years ago, headin' at that time for Wyoming. He throwed me. When I didn't hop him ag'in, the boys come over to see if I was busted. When they asked me if I was hurt, I says, 'He snapped my dern old leg like a 'tater.' And from that day on they called me Taterleg. Yes, and I guess I'd 'a' been in Wyoming now, maybe with a oyster parlor and a wife, if it hadn't been for that blame horse." He paused reminiscently; then he said:
"Where was you aimin' to camp tonight, Duke?"
"Where does the flier stop after it passes Misery, going west?"
"It stops for water at Glendora, about fifty or fifty-five miles west, sometimes. I've heard 'em say if a feller buys a ticket for there in Chicago, it'll let him off. But I don't guess it stops there regular. Why, Duke? Was you aimin' to take the flier there?"
"No. We'll stop there tonight, then, if your horse can make it."
"Make it! If he can't I'll eat him raw. He's made seventy-five many a time before today."
So they fared on that first day, in friendly converse. At sunset they drew up on a mesa, high above the treeless, broken country through which they had been riding all day, and saw Glendora in the valley below them.
"There she is," said Taterleg. "I wonder what we're goin' to run into down, there?"
ALLUREMENTS OF GLENDORA
In a bend of the Little Missouri, where it broadened out and took on the appearance of a consequential stream, Glendora lay, a lonely little village with a gray hill behind it.
There was but half a street in Glendora, like a setting for a stage, the railroad in the foreground, the little sun-baked station crouching by it, lonely as the winds which sung by night in the telegraph wires crossing its roof. Here the trains went by with a roar, leaving behind them a cloud of gray dust like a curtain to hide from the eyes of those who strained from their windows to see the little that remained of Glendora, once a place of more consequence than today.
Only enough remained of the town to live by its trade. There was enough flour in the store, enough whisky in the saloon; enough stamps in the post office, enough beds in the hotel, to satisfy with comfort the demands of the far-stretching population of the country contiguous thereto. But if there had risen an extraordinary occasion bringing a demand without notice for a thousand pounds more of flour, a barrel more of whisky, a hundred more stamps or five extra beds, Glendora would have fallen under the burden and collapsed in disgrace.
Close by the station there were cattle pens for loading stock, with two long tracks for holding the cars. In autumn fat cattle were driven down out of the hidden valleys to entrain there for market. In those days there was merriment after nightfall in Glendora. At other times it was mainly a quiet place, the shooting that was done on its one-sided street being of a peaceful nature in the way of expressing a feeling for which some plain-witted, drunken cowherder had no words.
A good many years before the day that the Duke and Taterleg came riding into Glendora, the town had supported more than one store and saloon. The shells of these dead enterprises stood there still, windows and doors boarded up, as if their owners had stopped their mouths when they went away to prevent a whisper of the secrets they might tell of the old riotous nights, or of fallen hopes, or dishonest transactions. So they stood now in their melancholy, backs against the gray hill, giving to Glendora the appearance of a town that was more than half dead, and soon must fail and pass utterly away in the gray-blowing clouds of dust.
The hotel seemed the brightest and soundest living spot in the place, for it was painted in green, like a watermelon, with a cottonwood tree growing beside the pump at the porch corner. In yellow letters upon the windowpane of the office there appeared the proprietor's name, doubtless the work of some wandering artist who had paid the price of his lodging or his dinner so.
ORSON WOOD, PROP.
said the sign, bedded in curlicues and twisted ornaments, as if a carpenter had planed the letters out of a board, leaving the shavings where they fell. A green rustic bench stood across one end of the long porch, such as is seen in boarding-houses frequented by railroad men, and chairs with whittled and notched arms before the office door, near the pump.
Into this atmosphere there had come, many years before, one of those innocents among men whose misfortune it is to fall before the beguilements of the dishonest; that sort of man whom the promoters of schemes go out to catch in the manner of an old maid trapping flies in a cup of suds. Milton Philbrook was this man. Somebody had sold him forty thousand acres of land in a body for three dollars an acre. It began at the river and ran back to the hills for a matter of twenty miles.
Philbrook bought the land on the showing that it was rich in coal deposits. Which was true enough. But he was not geologist enough to know that it was only lignite, and not a coal of commercial value in those times. This truth he came to later, together with the knowledge that his land was worth, at the most extravagant valuation, not more than fifty cents an acre.
Finding no market for his brown coal, Philbrook decided to adopt the customs of the country and turn cattleman. A little inquiry into that business convinced him that the expenses of growing the cattle and the long distance from market absorbed a great bulk of the profits needlessly. He set about with the original plan, therefore, of fencing his forty thousand acres with wire, thus erasing at one bold stroke the cost of hiring men to guard his herds.
A fence in the Bad Lands was unknown outside a corral in those days. When carloads of barbed wire and posts began to arrive at Glendora men came riding in for miles to satisfy themselves that the rumors were founded; when Philbrook hired men to build the fence, and operations were begun, murmurs and threats against the unwelcome innovation were heard. Philbrook pushed the work to conclusion, unmindful of the threats, moved now by the intention of founding a great, baronial estate in that bleak land. His further plan of profit and consequence was to establish a packing-house at Glendora, where his herds could be slaughtered and dressed and shipped neat to market, at once assuring him a double profit and reduced expense. But that was one phase of his dream that never hardened into the reality of machinery and bricks.
While the long lines of fence were going up, carpenters were at work building a fit seat for Philbrook's baronial aims. The point he chose for his home site was the top of a bare plateau overlooking the river, the face of it gray, crumbling shale, rising three hundred feet in abrupt slope from the water's edge. At great labor and expense Philbrook built a road between Glendora and this place, and carried water in pipes from the river to irrigate the grass, trees, shrubs and blooming plants alien to that country which he planted to break the bleakness of it and make a setting for his costly home.
Here on this jutting shoulder of the cold, unfriendly upland, a house rose which was the wonder of all who beheld it as they rode the wild distances and viewed it from afar. It seemed a mansion to them, its walls gleaming white, its roof green as the hope in its builder's breast. It was a large house, and seemed larger for its prominence against the sky, built in the shape of a T, with wide porches in the angles. And to this place, upon which he had lavished what remained of his fortune, Philbrook brought his wife and little daughter, as strange to their surroundings as the delicate flowers which pined and drooped in that unfriendly soil.
Immediately upon completion of his fences he had imported well-bred cattle and set them grazing within his confines. He set men to riding by night and day a patrol of his long lines of wire, rifles under their thighs, with orders to shoot anybody found cutting the fences in accordance with the many threats to serve them so. Contentions and feuds began, and battles and bloody encounters, which did not cease through many a turbulent year. Philbrook lived in the saddle, for he was a man of high courage and unbending determination, leaving his wife and child in the suspense and solitude of their grand home in which they found no pleasure.
The trees and shrubs which Philbrook had planted with such care and attended with such hope, withered on the bleak plateau and died, in spite of the water from the river; the delicate grass with which he sought to beautify and clothe the harsh gray soil sickened and pined away; the shrubs made a short battle against the bleakness of winter, putting out pale, strange flowers like the wan smile of a woman who stands on the threshold of death, then failed away, and died. Mrs. Philbrook broke under the long strain of never-ending battles, and died the spring that her daughter came eighteen years of age.
This girl had grown up in the saddle, a true daughter of her fighting sire. Time and again she had led a patrol of two fence-riders along one side of that sixty square miles of ranch while her father guarded the other. She could handle firearms with speed and accuracy equal to any man on the range, where she had been bearing a man's burden since her early girlhood.
All this information pertaining to the history of Milton Philbrook and his adventures in the Bad Lands, Orson Wood, the one-armed landlord at the hotel in Glendora told Lambert on the evening of the travelers' arrival there. The story had come as the result of questions concerning the great white house on the mesa, the two men sitting on the porch in plain view of it, Taterleg entertaining the daughter of the hotel across the show case in the office.
Lambert found the story more interesting than anything he ever had imagined of the Bad Lands. Here was romance looking down on him from the lonely walls of that white house, and heroism of a finer kind than these people appreciated, he was sure.
"Is the girl still here?" he inquired.
"Yes, she's back now. She's been away to school in Boston for three or four years, comin' back in summer for a little while."
"When did she come back?"
Lambert felt that his voice was thick as he inquired, disturbed by the eager beating of his heart. Who knows? and perhaps, and all the rest of it came galloping to him with a roar of blood in his ears like the sound of a thousand hoofs. The landlord called over his shoulder to his daughter:
"Alta, when did Vesta Philbrook come back?"
"Four or five weeks ago," said Alta, with the sound of chewing gum.
"Four or five weeks ago," the landlord repeated, as though Alta spoke a foreign tongue and must be translated.
"I see," said Lambert, vaguely, shaking to the tips of his fingers with a kind of buck ague that he never had suffered from before. He was afraid the landlord would notice it, and slewed his chair, getting out his tobacco to cover the fool spell.
For that was she, Vesta Philbrook was she, and she was Vesta Philbrook. He knew it as well as he knew that he could count ten. Something had led him there that day; the force that was shaping the course of their two lives to cross again had held him back when he had considered selling his horse and going West a long distance on the train. He grew calmer when he had his cigarette alight. The landlord was talking again.
"Funny thing about Vesta comin' home, too," he said, and stopped a little, as if to consider the humor of it. Lambert looked at him with a sudden wrench of the neck.
"Philbrook's luck held out, it looked like, till she got through her education. All through the fights he had and the scrapes he run into the last ten years he never got a scratch. Bullets used to hum around that man like bees, and he'd ride through 'em like they was bees, but none of 'em ever notched him. Curious, wasn't it?"
"Did somebody get him at last?"
"No, he took typhoid fever. He took down about a week or ten days after Vesta got home. He died about a couple of week ago. Vesta had him laid beside her mother up there on the hill. He said they'd never run him out of this country, livin' or dead."
Lambert swallowed a dry lump.
"Is she running the ranch?"
"Like an old soldier, sir. I tell you, I've got a whole lot of admiration for that girl."
"She must have her hands full."
"Night and day. She's short on fence-riders, and I guess if you boys are lookin' for a job you can land up there with Vesta, all right."
Taterleg and the girl came out and sat on the green rustic bench at the farther end of the porch. It complained under them; there was talk and low giggling.
"We didn't expect to strike anything this soon," Lambert said, his active mind leaping ahead to shape new romance like a magician.
"You don't look like the kind of boys that'd shy from a job if it jumped out in the road ahead of you."
"I'd hate for folks to think we would."
"Ain't you the feller they call; the Duke of Chimney Butte?"
"They call me that in this country."
"Yes; I knew that horse the minute you rode up, though he's changed for the better wonderful since I saw him last, and I knew you from the descriptions I've heard of you. Vesta'd give you a job in a minute, and she'd pay you good money, too. I wouldn't wonder if she didn't put you in as foreman right on the jump, account of the name you've got up here in the Bad Lands."
"Not much to my credit in the name, I'm afraid," said Lambert, almost sadly. "Do they still cut her fences and run off her stock?"
"Yes; rustlin's got to be stylish around here ag'in, after we thought we had all them gangs rounded up and sent to the pen. I guess some of their time must be up and they're comin' home."
"It's pretty tough for a single-handed girl."
"Yes, it is tough. Them fellers are more than likely some of the old crowd Philbrook used to fight and round up and send over the road. He killed off four or five of them, and the rest of them swore they'd salt him when they'd done their time. Well, he's gone. But they're not above fightin' a girl."
"It's a tough job for a woman," said Lambert, looking thoughtfully toward the white house on the mesa.
"Ain't it, though?"
Lambert thought about it a while, or appeared to be thinking about it, sitting with bent head, smoking silently, looking now and then toward the ranchhouse, the lights of which could be seen. Alta came across the porch presently, Taterleg attending her like a courtier. She dismissed him at the door with an excuse of deferred duties within. He joined his thoughtful partner.